Your dog might not just be checking out your dirty laundry when he sniffs your socks — he could be checking for malaria, too.
A new study, released last week at the annual convention of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, revealed that dogs could recognize socks worn overnight by children infected with even the mildest malaria cases.
These findings come from a study conducted by British and Gambian scientists and the charity Medical Detection Dogs. This could be a big deal, as malaria-detecting dogs could help patrol busy borders where malaria can sometimes slip into a country that has eliminated the disease.
“It is useful in countries like South Africa, close to elimination, or Sri Lanka, that has eliminated malaria. How do you locate that one person in a million people carrying the parasite in a country that has recorded no infection without doing invasive tests?” Dr. Steve W. Lindsay, an entomologist at Durham University and lead investigator on the study, told CNN.
The dogs could also help point out people carrying the disease but who do not show symptoms, which could also be extremely useful for regions on the brink of elimination.
Research has shown that people with malaria attract mosquitoes, and it is possible that malaria parasites have developed the ability to release odoriferous chemicals that attract them, according to the New York Times.
#SMELL FACT: A study shows that dogs have the ability to detect malaria in humans. Scientists aren’t sure exactly what dogs are smelling, but it’s known that malaria parasites produce volatile aldehydes like those found in Chanel No. 5. pic.twitter.com/x11ipOGWOR— Katie Puckrik (@KatiePuckrik) November 6, 2018
This study trained two dogs — Lexi, a Labrador-golden retriever mix and Sally, a Labrador — to sniff jars containing thin nylon socks that Gambian children had worn overnight.
The dogs were taught to stop and point to jars when they identified the odors of malaria parasites.
They were 70% accurate at identifying socks from children infected by malaria, but 90% accurate at not giving false positives, according to the New York Times.
These preliminary studies were meant to show that detection was possible, Lindsay said.
He also noted that the dogs may have been more accurate if the conditions were different, as some children likely shared beds with other infected children and the socks were stored in a freezer for a year prior to the study.
Still, the results are encouraging.
“I believe that this study indicates that dogs have an excellent ability to detect malaria and if presented within an individual infected with the parasite or a piece of recently worn clothing, their accuracy levels will be extremely high. This is a reliable, non-invasive test and is extremely exciting for the future,” Claire Guest, CEO of Medical Detection Dogs, told CNN.
These good dogs won’t soon replace lab tests, but for a disease that infected an estimated 216 million people in 2016 and killed 445,000, this is certainly welcomed news.