British Columbia

Sit. Stay. Sniff superbugs? C. difficile sniffing springer spaniel is making hospitals safer

A pioneering pooch, the first North American dog trained to sniff out superbugs, is showing his "tricks" at the University Hospital of Northern B.C.

Angus loaned for 2 days to Prince George hospital by Vancouver Coastal Health

Angus, a springer spaniel, was the first dog in North America trained to sniff out superbugs in hospitals. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

In a hospital lounge at the University Hospital of Northern B.C., a spry, bright-eyed dog named Angus quickly sniffs out a hidden wad of gauze that smells like the superbug, C. difficile.

Teresa Zurberg, Angus' handler, swiftly rewards the black-and-white springer spaniel with blueberry dog treats from her pocket. The dog treats are key in the very serious battle to rid hospitals of a highly-infectious, resilient bacteria. 

Dog treats drive search for hospital superbugs 

"Bomb dogs don't care about bombs, drug dogs don't care about drugs, and Angus doesn't care about C. difficile," explained Zurberg.  "But Angus has learned that finding that C. diff odour gets him what he really wants, which is either the treats in my pocket or his tug toy, which he would go through fire to get."

Sometimes, Angus gets as much as two handfuls of treats during his working day — rewards for his canine infection detection inside health-care facilities.. 

Angus and his handler have worked in hospitals from Ottawa to Prince George but work full time for Vancouver Coastal Health. Here, Angus tugs at his 'reward' toy after successfully detecting a C. Difficile sample during a demo at Vancouver General Hospital in 2017. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Angus tracked down the gauze during a  demonstration at the UNHBC,  just before starting his rounds at the northern hospital to identify real reservoirs of hidden superbugs.

C. difficile: 'We have cases pretty much all the time here'

Over two days, Angus and Zurberg plan to sniff their way through common areas, shared bathrooms, nursing stations and lounges. The hospital's housekeepers will accompany them, disinfecting as they go.

Mindy Thompson heads housekeeping services at UNHBC. She says her staff is " excited to see what Angus does. We want to determine if our cleaning practices are up to standards and see if we can improve cleaning at the hospital here." 

Thompson said C. difficile is very common.

"We have cases pretty much all the time here at the hospital."

As well as common, the superbug is very hard to track down and challenging to eradicate. Disinfecting areas with C. difficile takes twice as long and requires special cleaning products. 

Angus and his handler prepare to sniff out C. Difficile bacteria at the University Hospital of Northern B.C.. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

Zurberg said dog sniffers  are the fastest, cheapest and most accurate way to deal with C. difficile.  

"There's no logistically feasible technology to do what the dogs can do," she said. "You can't swab everywhere and test it. But Angus ... he can do this whole room in less than a minute and be very accurate."

Sniffer dogs considered best form of infection detection

Long before she started doing this work, Zurberg was once infected by C. difficile herself.

The superbug is the most common cause of acute diarrhea in hospitals and long-term care facilites in North America. Elderly or immunocompromised patients are most at risk, and it can be deadly.

Zurberg said she still suffers from side effects, and her illness made her passionate about the superbug detection work she does as canine detection unit manager for Vancouver Coastal Health. 

Angus, was the first Canadian dog ever trained to detect the scent of C. difficile in a hospital. Angus started working with Zurberg at Vancouver Coastal Health in 2016.

The duo now has a full time job, that includes visits to hospitals in the B.C. Interior and as far away as Ottawa and Prince George. 

A second C diff sniffer dog, Dodger, now also works in Vancouver, with two more canines in training.  

About the Author

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener is an award-winning journalist and author. She's been covering the news in central and northern British Columbia for more than 15 years.

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