ANOTHER NOSE FOR TROUBLE
Hospital has two C. diff sniffers
An English springer spaniel and his handler have been so successful at detecting a superbug at Vancouver General Hospital that a second dog is now being trained.
Angus, who started his dog detective work at the hospital sniffing out Clostridium difficile (Cdiff) just months ago, is getting a partner named Dodger, another springer spaniel who was rescued by Angus’ handler, Teresa Zurberg. Angus uses his hyperacute scent-tracking abilities to find even the most minute reservoirs of the superbug in fecal matter that lingers even after hospital rooms have been cleaned. C-diff is a leading cause of potentially deadly, infectious diarrhea in hospitals and residential care facilities.
At a news conference Monday, B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake gave Angus his working dog badge after he passed his probationary period. The former veterinarian also hid a C-diff specimen under a stretcher in a vacant hall to see how long it would take Angus to find it. When the rambunctious dog entered the area, his snout led him directly to the item with a distinct odour under the stretcher. His time to scent detection, or what’s called a focused alert, was under 10 seconds.
Angus has found C-diff on about 100 occasions since he started working at VGH last summer. He finds it in patient rooms and other areas that need more cleaning. As a reward, he asks for nothing
more than a few kibbles or tug of war playtime. After Angus signals his find, hospital disinfection staff employ an ultraviolet light disin- fection robot that, when turned on, can eradicate 99.9 per cent of C-diff spores.
Dr. Elizabeth Bryce, head of infection control at Vancouver Coastal Health, said Angus’ discoveries are helping improve patient education and making hospital staff aware of which hygiene policies and practices need to change. Bryce said there have been no problems having Angus in the hospital; he’s become a purely positive asset. His success is even leading to the development of a new infection-control manual.
In one case, Angus smelled C-diff on the denim jeans of a patient being discharged from VGH. He had been admitted to hospital with diarrhea and had brought it into the hospital with him. Indeed, 28 per cent of C-diff cases are what’s called community-acquired, as opposed to hospital-acquired. Bryce said this case shows that patients who have diarrhea should, upon hospital admission, have their clothes sealed up in a bag and removed from the hospital to prevent contamination and the spread of the superbug.
The dogs are part of a $150,000 hospital-funded program that is now seeking private donors to expand. The budget covers the costs of dog treats, trainer’s fees, extra costs for the trio of ultraviolet light disinfection robots used to decontaminate surfaces, the new manual and a website to help educate the public. Bryce said since Angus started work at VGH, it has become one of the “top users of UV disinfection in North America.
“Angus has shown us that he is very capable at finding C-diff on surfaces, equipment and devices that health-care providers and others have missed. This doesn’t mean the hospital isn’t being cleaned properly. No one is perfect. He’s showing us there are new areas that need more (sanitation) attention,” Bryce said, referring to the fact that cluttered areas appear to hold reservoirs of the superbug. So stored or discarded medical equipment and furniture are getting more attention.
Lake said the program is proving its value and may one day spread to other hospitals and health regions. Jokingly, he said he could reassure the medical profession that “no decision has been made to replace physicians with springer spaniels.”
Once Dodger is fully trained, Angus may work at other hospitals, contracted out by VCH (which is also contemplating a certification program for such dogs).
Zurberg, who owns the dogs with her husband Markus, a nurse who works in patient safety and quality care at VGH, is a former Canadian Forces medic and dog trainer. The Zurbergs got the idea for a canine C-diff detection role after she got C-diff herself.