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Superbug-sniffing spaniel kept busy at Vancouver hospital

Angus, a two-and-a-half year old English springer spaniel, has been hard at work as part of a pilot program at Vancouver General Hospital. The dog has been trained to sniff out the potentially deadly superbug, C. difficile.

Angus has found 50 to 70 instances of C. difficile at VGH since he began working there in November

Angus, an English springer spaniel, tugs at his toy after successfully detecting a C. difficile sample during a demonstration at Vancouver General Hospital on Monday. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Angus, a two-and-a-half year old English springer spaniel, tugs at his leash, pulling handler Teresa Zurberg down the hall at Vancouver General Hospital.

He zeros in on a hospital bed where a sample of the superbug Clostridium difficile has been hidden as part of a demonstration.

After eagerly pushing his way under the bed, Angus gets down on his belly and wags his tail excitedly. 

"Alert," says Zurberg — The C. difficile has been located. The search, which began about 20 metres away, only took 15 seconds.

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake pets Angus, a C. difficile detection dog, while handler Teresa Zurberg looks on. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Zurberg and Angus have been working at VGH since November as part of a pilot program. 

"So far, Angus is averaging one to two finds per day, so he's got somewhere between 50 and 70 alerts right now," said Zurberg, who brings Angus to VGH four days a week.

"He does all of the common areas in the hospital. He does — in the units, we do all the supply room," she said. "We do some patients's rooms but we don't do patients themselves."

Superbug-sniffing spaniel put to work at Vancouver Hospital 0:57

No stranger to C. difficile

Zurberg personally experienced a nasty C. difficile infection about three years ago after wounding herself with a piece of metal while working on a fence.

While she was on antibiotics, she contracted the infection.

"I was in the hospital for a week, and I lost about 20 pounds ... so it was horrible," she said. "I was lucky that I was young and healthy to begin with, because for the elderly it could be fatal."

Zurberg described wretched diarrhea for days on end.

"Nothing stays in. Even days after you haven't had food, you still have diarrhea. I don't know where it comes from," she said. "It's uncomfortable. Your stomach hurts. You've got fevers. You just feel horrible."

Zurberg is a retired Canadian Forces Army medic who now trains detection dogs. Her husband, who works as a nurse at VGH, heard about a similar project in Amsterdam and asked her if it would be possible to train one of her dogs to sniff out C. difficile.

Before long, Angus was put to work.

Angus, an English springer spaniel, wears a Vancouver Coastal Health security pass. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

More superbug-sniffing dogs a possibility

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake was at VGH on Monday to watch Angus in action and to present the spaniel with his "working dog" badges.

"They're able to clear rooms and they've found [C. difficile] on the bottom of furniture and pieces of equipment, and then they send in the disinfections team, which could be people or it could be the little UV robots," said Lake, who says the program cost is about $150,000.

"When you think about the impact C. difficile can have on patients and the cost of trying to clean up an infection in a hospital, that's a very good value for money," he said.

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake velcros a 'working dog' badge onto Angus, a dog trained to sniff out C. difficile in hospitals. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"If it is as effective as we believe it is, then I imagine we could see this kind of a dog detection system in other hospitals around the province."

Zurberg, who is in the process of training another springer spaniel, Dodger, said she's been having conversations with U.S. hospitals who are interested in getting similar projects rolling.

While Dodger (left) is still in training, Angus (right) has been working at Vancouver General Hospital since November. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

And it's possible the dogs can be trained to sniff out more than just C. difficile.

"Right now, we're just focusing on C. diff., just because our project's so new, but really it opens the window — we're only limited by our imagination as to what we can get these dogs to start looking for," said Zurberg.

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

About the Author

Rafferty Baker

Rafferty Baker is CBC Vancouver's mobile journalist. Follow him @raffertybaker