It’s no mystery that dogs can sense things about humans, their moods, character, and more. When I have an ill child, or one of us is having a rough day, our dogs and, even the cat, take note and snuggle up close. But now dogs have been trained to use their sense of smell to detect disease, specifically the highly transmittable Clostridium difficile, (C. difficile, C. diff) a bacterial infection that causes severe diarrhea and dehydration, affecting an estimated 14,000 people in the U.S. annually.
A Bug Gone Bad
C. diff often safely resides in the gastrointestinal tract of humans, but when healthy bacteria are killed off with the use of antibiotics, the diarrhea-producing bacterium can get out of control, especially for those with weakened immune systems, such as in the elderly and in hospitals. Therefore, early detection in a hospital setting is particularly important, especially since it is so contagious.
A Doggone Good Idea
Using a dog to assist in identifying this potentially lethal infection occurred to Dr. Marije Bomers, a consultant internist and infectious disease specialist at VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam. She discussed with a nurse that they had noticed patients with C. difficile had a particular odor. Knowing that dogs are even more sensitive to smells, she began training her own dog, a 2-year-old old beagle named Cliff to identify the C. diff fragrance.
Work is Play
Cliff worked with a police dog trainer who conditions dogs to search for particular scents. The training is designed to be a fun game of hide-and-go-seek to engage the dog’s interest in finding an odor. At first, C. difficile samples were used that were strong enough that even the human handlers could detect the smell, and then the odor concentrations were decreased and hidden to make it trickier. Cliff was trained to sit or lay down when the smell was detected.
When an outbreak was detected in Bomer’s hospital in the Netherlands, Cliff was brought in and was found to accurately detect positive cases of C.diff in 25 out of 30 infected patients. He only wrongly ‘diagnosed’ the infection in five out of 270 hospital patients who did not have it.
Early detection is vital to prevent transmission, but diagnostic tests can be expensive and slow, which can delay treatment for up to a week. But Cliff was able to check patients on an entire ward within 10 minutes, making him much faster than conventional testing methods.
The Future of Detection
Some scientists are looking to develop artificial means of detecting disease odors, particularly as dogs have been shown to be able to detect cancers, diabetic changes, and other health problems. But for now, dogs like Cliff will work for treats and belly rubs!
Do you know of any amazing dogs who detect things to help you or others?
For more information, visit Fox News. Photo of Cliff also courtesy of Fox News.