Why Dogs Are Great At Sniffing Out Diseases

Canines have a sense of smell that's even more sensitive than most man-made instruments.

Frida the dog, screengrabbed from an LA Times tweet. (Andrea Castillo / Los Angeles Times)

Dogs have an incredible sense of smell — so acute, in fact, that it is better than even the most advanced man-made instrument. A dog’s nose is powerful enough to detect substances at concentrations of one part per trillion, which would be a single drop of liquid in 20 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Dogs can be trained to sniff out bombs and drugs, pursue subjects or find dead bodies. And now, they’re being used more and more in experiments to detect human disease, like cancer, diabetes, tuberculosis, and malaria, from smell alone.

Researchers presented these latest results at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene annual meeting in New Orleans on Monday. In double-blind lab tests, two canines were able to correctly pick out the scent of children infected with malaria parasites 70 percent of the time. This work is just proof of concept, but the hope is that one day, biodetection dogs could be used at airports, ports of entry or other border crossing to prevent the spread of diseases.

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