Superbug sniffing dog Angus was introduced Tuesday at the Vancouver General Hospital to detect Clostridium difficile or C. difficile, a deadly bacteria causing diarrhea, pseudomembranous colitis, bowel perforation, sepsis, and even death among patients. After proving himself in tests, the English springer spaniel has been sent to the trenches to combat the purveyor of infectious diarrhea in hospitals and long-term care facilities.
According to CBC, Teresa Zurberg who trained the superbug sniffing dog, nearly died after contracting C. difficile while being treated for a gash on her leg three years ago. Inspired by her experience, she developed Angus into the first dog in Canada certified to detect C. difficile in areas of the hospital that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Once the presence of the superbug has been detected, the area or patient room is cleaned with a state-of-the-art robot that uses ultraviolet light to disinfect 99.9 percent of the C. difficile spores. Dr. Elizabeth Bryce, the medical director for infection control with Vancouver Coastal Health, praised the 2-year-old sniffing dog’s keen nose as a key part of the hospital’s infection-fighting strategy.
“We can now target areas. Let’s say we have a cluster of cases. We could bring Angus in. He could tell us if there are any hidden reservoirs, and we could do additional cleaning.”
According to The Toronto Star, a Vancouver medical microbiologist says Angus’ speed in rooting out C. difficile makes him an efficient superbug sniffing machine. The versatile dog has his work cut out for him this summer, identifying the bacterium that attacks patients with weakened immune systems and undermines the hospital’s overall cleanliness standards.
Dr. Bryce told reporters that hospitals in the region treat about 700 cases of C. difficile each year. Her assertion that a minority of these cases, about 30 percent, originate outside hospitals, places the majority inside with the superbug to keep the sniffing dog occupied.
Dr. Bryce described hospitals as having different fecal smells, but in three formal examinations, Angus demonstrated his proficiency at detecting the “barn smell” associated with C. difficile toxins. Explaining how the scent was placed on cotton swabs during training sessions, she said this.
“We’re using his talents to look for reservoirs of C. difficile in places like unoccupied rooms, bathrooms and hallways. We want Angus to make a quick sweep of the areas and then when he detects something, we can do more cleaning.”
Mentioning that hospital executives were receptive right from the beginning, Dr. Bryce recalled watching Angus mature from a rambunctious juvenile to the superbug sniffing dog he is now, intent on his job of searching high and low, even opening cupboards with his paws. She added that Angus will likely be re-certified each year, his health closely monitored.
According to the Vancouver Sun, visitors are cautioned not to disrupt his concentration if they see him on the prowl for the superbug in hospital walkways and corners. They are warned not to take offense if they get ignored by Angus sniffing around with his handler Zurberg in tow. The Montana-born dog is tasked with helping to reduce the thousands of C. difficile cases acquired in B.C. hospitals each year, a representation of the 220,000 hospital-acquired infections across Canada and 8,000 resulting deaths for the same period.
Handling superbug sniffing Angus, Zurberg is a former Canadian Forces medic and dog trainer who previously worked at Western K9 Security. Carrying a heavy load as a cardiac technician for a group of cardiologists in the Fraser Valley, she has still to figure out how many hours a week Angus will be on duty at Vancouver General. She shared the following thoughts.
“I’m really humbled by detective dogs, just totally awed by what they can do. And Angus has proven he’s perfect for this kind of work. He doesn’t have an off switch. He’s persistent, energetic, athletic, independent, and has a huge hunt drive.”
Zurberg’s husband Markus works as a nurse in patient safety and quality care at Vancouver General. With an inside source to help her streamline her superbug sniffing dog’s role in the hospital, Zurberg has developed a clear routine for him.
“Angus isn’t going to be smelling patients. C. difficile is spread through fecal-oral routes, poor hand hygiene, and contaminated surfaces so Angus will detect it in places that need to be cleaned better. C. difficile has a distinct odour. If there’s a scent to find, he’ll get to it.”
Her near-death encounter with the superbug seemed a fit segue to her prior military role, which was to train sniffing dogs for drug and bomb detection. The logical next step was for her to train Angus in bacteria detection.
Regarding the possibility of Angus picking up C. difficile or some other superbug while sniffing around, she said she has consulted his veterinarian on the matter and is not worried. Her military attitude toward duty is passed down to her dog.
“His risks will be the same as those that other service dogs face.”
Bane of the superbug, Angus the sniffing dog will not be constrained from fulfilling his assignment.
[Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images]