Angus, a three-year-old English springer spaniel with a talent for C. difficile spores in hospitals, with his trainer Teresa Zurberg. Photo: Barry Gerding/Black Press

Canine has a nose for detecting infectious C. difficile

Angus, an English springer spaniel, displays hospital sniffing talents to IH staff

Vancouver Coastal Health’s four-legged infection fighter made a road-trip to Kelowna on Monday to showcase his C. difficile detection abilities.

Angus, a three-year-old English springer spaniel displayed his talents Monday in the lecture theatre at Kelowna General Hospital’s clinic academic campus, finding a piece of scented gauze with C. difficile spore odour hidden under a chair by his trainer Teresa Zurberg.

Angus uses his ultra-sensitive detection device—his nose—to seek out C. difficile spores in the hospital environment. Angus will search common and clinical areas and patient units when patients are not present.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to share our knowledge and expertise with our health care colleagues across the province,” said Teresa Zurberg.

“Since Angus started working at Vancouver General Hospital in 2016, we have learned a tremendous amount about the presence and eradication of C. difficile in health care settings.”

Angus is trained to detect Clostridium difficile or C. difficile, a superbug that attacks people whose immune systems have been weakened by antibiotics.

He and a second dog—Dodger—are part of an infection prevention team that includes an infection control practitioner and housekeeping staff, all dedicated to reducing environmental contamination of C. difficile.

This results in a reduction in the transmission of C. difficile by health care workers, visitors and patients, and, in turn, a decrease in the C. difficile infection rate. The good news—it’s working. The nose clearly knows where to find bacteria.

Vancouver Coastal Health has recorded a significant decrease in the number of hospital acquired C. difficile cases since Angus began sniffing out C. difficile infection at Vancouver General Hospital.

“I know how serious C. difficile can be because I nearly died from it,” said Zurberg. “To know that Angus, and now Dodger, are playing a key role in preventing other people from contracting this potentially life-altering infection is very rewarding.”

Finding reservoirs of C. difficile is crucial to eradicating the superbug. Once the bacterium is detected by Angus or Dodger at VGH, the area or patient room is cleaned, often with a state-of-the-art ultraviolet-C light disinfecting robot that removes 99.9 per cent of the spores.

VGH has three light disinfecting robots, known as “R-D” (Rapid Disinfector).

Since the dogs were let out of the doghouse and into the hospital, VGH has become better at targeting the disinfection to where it is needed the most.

“In the Intensive Care Unit, we work hard to prevent the spread of infection by isolating patients, washing our hands and working with environmental services to keep the unit clean,” said Jackson Lam, VGH patient services manager.

“Having Angus come through the ICU is an innovative and exciting way to discover new places that C. difficile might be lingering on surfaces. That way we can immediately target cleaning and disinfection.”

Vancouver Coastal Health has implemented a number of measures to combat the spread of antibiotic-resistant organisms and has won national and international awards for this innovative work.

It was the first health authority in Canada to utilize ultraviolet light to supplement the disinfection process and the first to tag and barcode clean equipment to ensure routine inspections and maintenance are performed. Vancouver Coastal Health also participates in voluntary as well as mandatory provincial surveillance programs.

There is a downside, however, to having to having two trained C. difficile detection dogs at VGH. “Everyone wants to pet Angus,” said Lam. “We have to respect that he is a working dog and not touch him, as handsome a dog as he is.”

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