Dog in Vancouver Hospital Tracks Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs by Smell

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The dogtor will see you now.

While it may be unusual to see a dog scrubbing down to make rounds in a hospital, faced with “hazard level urgent” superbugs, some medical facilities are turning to canines’ keen sense of smell to sniff out infectious bacteria.

Clostridium difficile, or C. diff, is one of the most common strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It makes its home on previously sterilized surfaces, then reproduces when a human comes in contact with its spores. The CDC estimates C. diff kills as many as 15,000 people from digestive tract infection every year, and while medical facilities have been ineffective in slowing its spread, they have found a means of detecting it.

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It took a year and a half of extensive training, but now certified by the Canadian Ministry of Health and outfitted with a hospital ID, Angus, a two-year-old English Springer Spaniel, is walking Vancouver General Hospital’s floors on the hunt for C. diff.

“We strive to continue to find ways to provide better care, and sometimes the answer is not more technology, but instead, man’s best friend,” said Canadian Health Minister Terry Lake.

Angus is the first dog in Canada certified to detect infectious disease. It was actually a C. diff infection that brought him and his owner and trainer Teresa Zurberg together. Shortly after being treated for a leg wound, Zurberg began losing weight dramatically. She was eventually hospitalized for a week.

“It was awful, I almost died,” Zurberg said.

Teresa’s husband, Markus Zurberg, read about a dog in Amsterdam who was trained to sniff C. diff. He relayed the idea to Teresa, who works as a trainer for bomb and drug-detecting dogs.

“I told him, ‘If it’s got a smell I can teach a dog to find it,'” she said.

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Angus now helps the Vancouver General Hospital find and eliminate C. diff with as much as 99.99 percent certainty after a specialized cleaning robot is directed to the contaminated areas.

“We can now use Angus to help us detect the reservoirs, and then we can use the additional cleaning and the ultraviolet light a little more strategically,” said Dr. Elizabeth Bryce, medical director for infection control with Vancouver Coastal Health.

He’s just as vulnerable to infection as the rest of the humans in the hospital, but regular veterinary check ups to make sure Angus is healthy will substantially lessen that risk.

“What really gets me is when I have patients and families and friends come up and say, ‘Hey, I have C. diff or my grandma died from C. diff, that’s really cool what you’re doing,'” Zurberg said. “Hopefully it can help save some other lives.”

Apart from finding infectious diseases, dogs have been providing comfort to hospital patients for decades now. Follow this link to read about a boy with autism, who’s service dog Mahe provided more than medicine could offer.

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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and world traveler with a background in journalism, graphic design, and French pastry. He likes to learn new things whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, folk music and coffee.