Dog Detectives

dog detectiveMan’s best friend appears ready to do us another good turn.

Meet Angus, a 10 month old springer-spaniel puppy enrolled in Detective School over at Vancouver General Hospital. He’s learning how to sniff out the hospital superbug Clostridium difficile, or C difficile, before it gets hold of the patients.

The most prevalent of hospital superbugs, C difficile causes life-threatening diarrhea. It prefers the elderly, and once it gets hold of you it can return time and again, leaving you in a state of helpless anxiety between “cures.”

And there’s a lot of it. Just last week for example, a study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, concluded that C difficile causes almost 500,000 serious infections and 29,000 deaths a year.

Did you find those numbers meaningful? Because psychologists tell us that for most of us large numbers like that won’t sink in. So to get some perspective, let’s compare the harm caused by C difficile to the harm caused to U.S. troops during the Vietnam War. The total number of wounded was 153,303 and the number of deaths was 10,785 – and that was over a 20 year period that ended when the last helicopter pulled out of Saigon in 1975.

In other words, C difficile is serious business. Or as the CDC puts it, “This bacteria is an immediate public health threat that requires urgent and aggressive action.” (p.51)

The immediate threat exists mostly for hospital patients and the elderly in long term care facilities. One kind of aggressive action required is prevention – find the bug before it finds you. The trouble is, care homes and especially hospitals are large facilities. Invisible creatures can lurk anywhere, and there’s plenty of nooks and crannies to serve as hideouts. So how can we find them?

Angus! He has a nose for this kind of thing, literally. He has 125 to 300 million scent glands, while humans have a paltry 5 million or so. To appreciate the difference consider that, blindfolded, our sense of smell can detect the presence of an Olympic-size swimming pool. But a dog could find a single drop of water in 20 Olympic pools. And fortunately, diseases have specific scents associated with them too, which dogs can detect in such things as our breath, sweat, and urine.

We know that this heightened trait of smell is why we have long used our pals to detect such things as narcotics and bombs and to search for lost children. Now medical science has picked up the scent and has begun enlisting them as disease detectives. For example, about 10 years ago we saw the advent of medical assistance diabetic alert dogs to detect when a person’s blood sugar is low. Then we started programs using dogs in the early detection of various cancers, such as lung, ovarian, breast, bladder, and prostrate. And bringing us full circle, research published in the British Medical Journal 3 years ago found that dogs could sniff out C difficile with 100% accuracy. So Vancouver General Hospital is on to something here, and good for them.

Here’s a brief video where we meet Angus hard at work, as well as infectious disease specialist Elizabeth Bryce, MD, who is overseeing the program.

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