Here Are Some Very Good Boys Trained to Sniff Out Superbugs

A Vancouver hospital is using dogs to detect C. difficile.

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Mar 14 2017, 6:32pm

Dogs can sniff out bombs, drugs, and bed bugs, and now it seems their sensitive noses can also be used to detect antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

In July, Vancouver General Hospital started a pilot project where a specially trained English Springer Spaniel named Angus would sniff for Clostridium difficile and he's done so well that he's getting a partner—another Springer named Dodger.

C. difficile or, colloquially, C-diff, can cause life-threatening diarrhea and usually infects people who've had recent medical care and taken antibiotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Antibiotics kill good bacteria as well as bad, weakening people's immune systems and leaving them susceptible to other infections like C-diff through the fecal-oral route, aka touching stuff that has fecal matter on it then touching your mouth.) The CDC says C-diff is one of three "urgent hazards" to public health as far as drug resistance goes, alongside super gonorrhea and carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) bacteria. C-diff kills about 15,000 Americans every year.

Angus, who has a hospital ID badge and wears a jaunty blue vest, roams the building to track the scent of C-diff: small reservoirs of the bacteria can remain even after patient rooms and other areas have been cleaned. Angus has found C-diff between 50 and 70 times since July. When he signals that there is bacteria, VGH staff (part of the K9 Infection Prevention Team) use one of three ultraviolet-C light disinfecting robots that zap 99.9 percent of the C-diff spores.

Watch Angus in action:

Angus has even detected the bugs in discarded furniture and old equipment and, thanks to his discoveries, the hospital working on updating its hygiene policies as well as a new infection control manual. He once smelled C-diff on the jeans of a patient getting discharged; the man had been admitted to the hospital with diarrhea and brought the bug into VGH. The hospital system's head of infection control Elizabeth Bryce said this case shows that, upon being admitted, patients with diarrhea should have their clothes sealed in a bag and removed from the hospital to prevent spreading.

Angus' owner and handler Teresa Zurberg, a former Canadian Forces army medic and dog trainer, decided to train him after she recovered from a C-diff infection—she was hospitalized for five days and lost 20 pounds. Zurberg trains dogs to detect bombs and drugs, and as far as getting Angus in the hospital, it probably helped that her husband works in patient safety and quality care at VGH. Plus there is some precedent: A beagle named Cliff used to sniff patients for C-diff in the Netherlands, but he's retired now. Zurberg told the CBC that she's in talks with US hospitals about getting similar programs started.

Dodger will join Angus and the team once he's finished his training. Those are some very good boys.

Angus with a stuffed toy of a C-diff microbe.

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