Army trains dogs to sniff urine and sweat samples to detect COVID-19

Published : February 10, 2021 14:01 IST

A military dog sniffs urine samples during a demonstration to detect COVID-19 at an army veterinary hospital in New Delhi on February 9. Photo: ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

As has been their routine over the past few weeks, Jaya, Casper, and Mani sit nonchalantly cross-legged beside samples that have been detected positive for COVID-19. Interestingly, the samples have been tested positive not through routine diagnostic tests but, rather, by Jaya, Casper and Mani on the basis of urine and sweat samples of individuals.

Well, you may have guessed… Jaya, Casper, and Mani are among India’s first dogs that have been trained by the Indian Army to sniff human sweat and urine and detect coronavirus. While Casper is a cocker spaniel, Jaya and Mani belong to the indigenous chippiparai breed from Tamil Nadu, a breed that is marked by their lean bodies and long legs. And while Jaya and Casper have been fully trained, Mani is still undergoing training.

The Indian Army’s approach is based on the rather straightforward assumption that each disease triggers a distinct odour, which dogs are uniquely placed to sniff out. The COVID-19 samples are also safe since these do not carry the virus but only its biomarkers. The biomarkers, in turn, carry the unique signature, characteristics or fingerprints of the disease.

The Army has been training these dogs on specific biomarkers emanating from urine and sweat samples of COVID-19 positive patients. Said a statement from the Army: “It has been inferred that COVID-19’s volatile metabolic biomarkers are within the olfactory detection capability of trained dogs and [this ability] can help in the quick and real-time detection of [the] disease.”

Veterinarians from the Army’s RVC Centre and College, Meerut, undertook trials for COVID-19 detection by military dogs in controlled conditions using positive and suspected samples that were obtained from the Military Hospital in Meerut Cantonment and the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Subharti Medical College, Meerut. Jaya and Casper were then deployed at a transit camp in Delhi to sniff and screen 806 transient samples. Of these samples, 18 were detected as COVID-19 positive. While the chippiparai has been trained to sniff urine samples, cocker spaniels are being trained on sweat samples.

The Army is in the process of training eight dogs, all of whom will be deployed at a transit camp in northern India, from where troops move to high-security border areas. It is hoped that these trained dogs will allow for a quicker detection of the COVID-19 disease and reduce the need for tests in remote locations. Based on the data from samples tested by the three dogs so far, senior veterinarians are of the view that trained sniffer dogs can detect the disease to an accuracy of a whopping 95 per cent.Over the past few years, the Army has begun training breeds such as cocker spaniels and Labradors to detect diseases from the cells of infected people at a facility in Delhi. And more recently, the Army has made a “concerted” effort to train the indigenous chippiparai breed. While the olfactory senses of cocker spaniels and Labradors are already tried and time-tested, the Army is extremely happy with results from the indigenous chippiparai as well.

The Army’s approach mirrors current worldwide trends. Several countries including France, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, U.K., Russia, Finland, Lebanon, Australia, Argentina, Belgium and Chile have started training dogs for COVID-19 detection, especially for screening passengers at airports and railway stations and the population at other public spaces.

Dogs being used to sniff out human diseases is not new. The British charity Medical Detection Dogs was set up in 2008 and has had success using a canine’s sharp sense of smell to detect human diseases such as cancers, Parkinson’s disease and bacterial infections using samples taken from patients. In March 2020, even as the COVID-19 pandemic began to surge across Europe and the rest of the globe Medical Detection Dogs started working on a project to train dogs to sniff samples for the coronavirus. A successful diagnosis resulted in the dog being rewarded with a treat.