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What role can service dogs play in detecting COVID-19 in asymptomatic people?

Medical Mutts in Indianapolis uses scent to train service dogs.
Medical Mutts trains service animals in Indianapolis
Medical Mutts trains service dogs to help humans with medical conditions using scent
Medical Mutts in Indianapolis trains rescue dogs to become service animals
Posted at 6:00 AM, Feb 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-11 09:00:32-05

INDIANAPOLIS — As we approach almost a year of living in a global pandemic, many Hoosier organizations and businesses are contemplating whether or not their events for 2021 can happen.

Safety is a top concern as well as ways to stop the spread of COVID-19. So what role could service dogs play in helping us adapt to a new normal?

WRTV traveled to the northeast side of Indianapolis to the Medical Mutts new training facility to talk with the executive director, Jennifer Cattet.

Cattet is a scientist and animal lover who helps dogs from rescues and shelters become service dogs that can detect medical episodes in humans.

For example, dogs trained by Medical Mutts can alert their diabetic owner that they are heading into a hypoglycemic episode.

Many of these dogs are also trained to alert their owner that they are about to have a seizure.

At Medical Mutts, Cattet is even researching how dogs could detect when humans will have anxiety attacks.

"Once they recognize that, we pair it with the behavior that is going to let the person know that something is going to happen," Cattet said. "And we train them with scent."

Medical Mutts is an organization that was founded in 2013 and Cattet said it is important to her to take part in studies to prove what they do is legitimate. She said the work they do with these dogs from shelters and people's pets can save lives.

"A lot of people with diabetes fear going to sleep because they are not quite sure if they are going to wake up in the morning," Cattet said. "And then if you have seizures, not knowing if you are going to have a seizure is terrible. You know, think about driving, it is often out of the question, but even cooking."

So could service dogs be a part of our defense against the spread of the coronavirus?

Cattet said that is already in the works, but more research still needs to be done. She said they have already proven there is a scent we give off that dogs can detect with great accuracy.

"What we know is that they don't actually detect the virus, they detect the body's reaction to the virus," Cattet said. "And several studies have come out already showing that dogs are very very good at it, with somewhere around the 97 to 98 percent accuracy."

The limitations so far have to do with a difference between COVID-19 and other infections.

"Is there a smell that is specific to COVID or are we releasing a smell with any kind of upper respiratory condition?" Cattet said. "That we don't know yet."

Plus, there is an expense to collecting samples and a lot of red tape and regulations to work through before these studies and training can become more widespread.

"There's a lot of red tape going on and a lot of precautions to take," Cattet said.

She said they also need to figure out how to keep service dogs safe from COVID-19 as well as their handlers if they are going to be in the public environment working to detect COVID.

If you are interested in learning more about the work they do at Medical Mutts, you can visit their website or follow them on social media.

They are currently helping owners train their own pets who show potential to become a service animal via zoom during this pandemic.

Dogs who have what it takes to be service animals are highly motivated and confident. They must also be friendly and food-motivated. The dog does not need to be a specific breed and Cattet does not breed dogs, but rather finds dogs with good potential from area rescues and shelters.