Angus the English springer spaniel is providing an unusually adorable way to detect superbugs in a Vancouver hospital. Whilst his human counterparts in germ detection may be confined to their laboratories, Angus happily bounds through the wards with his Hospital ID badge jangling, sniffing bedding, floors and equipment with his handler.
Angus is the world’s only canine hospital employee trained to sniff out the superbug Clostridium difficile. C. difficile is a commonly found bacteria posing little threat to healthy adults but it can kill people with low immune systems. Hospitals are fertile grounds for it to spread among patients – hence visitors are strongly encouraged to wash their hands prior to entering wards.
C. difficile is a prominent superbug because the bacteria have developed immunity to many standard antibiotics. Infected patients must be treated quickly with an effective antibiotic for the sake of their own health and to prevent spread to other patients.
Pathology is integral to ensuring this happens. Microbiology staff test samples from patients for presence of the bug. Once this is confirmed, they test the bacteria against a variety of antibiotics to establish which of these are most effective. This information is provided to the ward doctors who can then prescribe the best antibiotic.
Angus’ ground-breaking career move came three years ago after his owner, Vancouver woman Teresa Zurberg, had a C. difficile infection that almost killed her. Teresa trains dogs in explosive and drug detection whilst her husband Markus is a nurse. He stumbled across a journal article about a Beagle in the Netherlands that had shown the ability to sniff C. difficile out in patients.
Training their new puppy to do this was a no-brainer for the couple. It took 10 months to train him to detect the bug in the environment (bedding, floors, equipment). But despite Angus’ success, he’s not in a position to replace pathology staff. Angus isn’t used directly on patients as he may cause allergies in already unwell people.
At four days a week, it’s nearly a full-time workload for the young pup.
Angus wasn’t directly interviewed for this story, but if he had been, he would probably say that while the long days can be ruff, ultimately his job is paw-some.