We’ve all heard stories about dogs that save lives. Countless dogs, like famous World War II canine veteran Chips, have bravely defended our soldiers in the field. Even more dogs have served as our own personal protectors, whether thwarting home invasions in the case of the Garzon-Jimenez family, or simply acting as deterrents to would-be criminals by peering out of our home front windows.
There are also some life saving applications that are not often associated with dogs. Their heightened sense of smell gives them the keen ability to sense gun powder and explosive materials, but does it also endow them with a knack for medical services? According to professional animal trainer, Hotsche Luik, it most certainly does.
Luik’s 2 year old beagle, Cliff, has been successfully trained to identify the “superbug” bacteria, C. difficile, in patients at the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam. C. difficile is a very common bacteria, harmlessly residing in most people’s digestive system. The overuse of antibiotics can destroy most of the other bacteria sharing space with C. difficile, causing it to boundlessly multiply. This is when symptoms of extreme nausea, diarrhea, and other serious complications begin to occur. In a hospital full of elderly patients with weak immune systems, C. difficile can wreak havoc, as it is very contagious when airborne.
Cliff the beagle is able to detect C. difficile in patients with an 83% sensitivity (25 out of 30 patients with the bacteria). During his trials he had only 5 false positives, confirming 265 healthy patients out of 270. While he is not a perfect diagnostic machine, Cliff represents what could be a very important, cost effective, preventative strategy for identifying susceptible patients early on. How so early on? Via a very impressive olfactory system: a beagle’s nose has an impressive 225 million scent receptors, whereas the human nose only has a measly five million by comparison.
The prevalence of C. difficile at malignant levels in patients in the U.S. has reached all time highs, averaging at about 14,000 cases per year. Doctors attribute its rise to the abundance of antibiotics used in the U.S. combined with the bacteria’s high risk for contraction amongst elderly inpatients. For a beagle to identify the first carrier of C. difficile in a specific hospital ward means possible lives spared and tens of thousands of dollars saved in medical costs. Not bad considering the other positive psychological and physiological benefits of having dogs around.