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Sniffing Out Superbugs
A Beagle is trained to detect Clostridium Difficile

With the recent flu outbreak, controlling contagious diseases has been a hot topic lately.  While the flu is mostly a seasonal challenge, hospitals and nursing homes battle "superbugs," or antibiotic resistant bacteria, year round.

Illnesses related to superbugs can be difficult to control in health care facilities and pose a serious health threat.  Transmission can be prevented with early detection, but diagnostic tests can be expensive and slow.

Researchers in the Netherlands decided to investigate whether dogs could be trained to detect superbugs.  Animals have been trained to sniff out cancer and detect low blood sugar levels, so why not bacteria.  In their first study, the researchers decided to focus on Clostridium Difficile, which can cause diarrhea, colitis, or even life threatening toxic megacolon.  The bacteria is on pace to surpass severe staph infections and MRSA in frequency and severity.  Past hospital outbreaks have claimed hundreds of lives.

The scientists began the study by training Cliff, a two year old Beagle, to identify c. difficile in stool samples and in infected patients.  Cliff indicates finding the bacteria by sitting or lying down.

After two months of training, Cliff proved to be quite reliable.  In the first part of the study, he was shown 100 stool samples (half with C. Difficile and half negative control samples).  Cliff correctly identified all 50 positive stool samples (100 percent) and 47 out of 50 negative samples (94 percent).

For the second part of the study, Cliff was taken to two different hospital wards to test his detection abilities on 300 patients.  The Cliff correctly identified 25 out of 30 people with C. Difficile (83 percent) and 265 out of 270 negative controls (98 percent).  Cliff works quickly and has the potential to check out an entire hospital ward for C. Difficile in under ten minutes.

I was impressed not only by Cliff’s detection abilities, but by the fact he was trained in only two months.  And this was Cliff’s first exposure to scent work!  Simply amazing!

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

Screenshot from BMJ.

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