Canines have been used in the medial field for years, and have been hugely successful in detecting everything from life-threatening cancers to drops in blood sugar and oncoming seizures. But now, these same animals have become a valuable asset in the cleaning world. Dogs are now a invaluable resource when identifying bed bug outbreaks, and most recently, patients suffering from Clostridium difficile (C.diff).

According to Fox News reporting, researchers from VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam have successfully trained a 2-year-old male beagle named Cliff detect the smell of C.diff in both stool samples and the air surrounding patients in hospitals. By simply sitting or lying down, Cliff can easily indicate the presence of the superbug — with up to 83 percent accuracy.

Cliff's achievements could potentially lead to better screening techniques in hospital wards, areas most at risk for breakouts of C.diff.  

"The whole problem with C.diff is it's transmissible," says the study's lead author Dr. Marije Bomers, a consultant internist and infectious disease specialist at VU University Medical Center. "If one patient has it in the ward and you don't isolate the patient, it's not just one patient — it's two, it's three, and then half your ward has C.diff. In order to try and prevent transmission in your hospital, it's important to recognize C.diff patients as early as possible."

C.diff is considered to be one of the most serious healthcare-associated infections (HAI) in the past couple of years, often affecting elderly hospital patients who have been recently treated with antibiotics. Hailed as a deadly superbug, the rise of the bacteria has been attributed to the overuse of antibiotics in hospitals, because it is resistant to most antibiotic medication.
For the majority of healthy patients, C.diff often harmlessly resides in the gut, but becomes a serious medical issue when the normal gut flora is destroyed by antibiotics, allowing for the spread and overabundance of the deadly bacteria. Those suffering from C.diff often have watery diarrhea multiple times a day, as well as abdominal cramping, fever and nausea – making it difficult to differentiate between normal diarrhea and the much more serious condition.

However, one significant distinguishing factor is the distinct odor associated with C.diff.  

According to Bomers, the inspiration for the project came when she realized it wasn't that difficult to make out the C.diff smell for herself.

"I was discussing a patient who had diarrhea and wondering if it could be caused by C.diff, and one of the nurses said it smells like it could be caused by C.diff," Bomers said. "So, that made us think if humans can distinguish the smell, and detection dogs have a far superior sense of smell — maybe they can be trained to identify the sense of smell of C.diff."

After six months of training, Cliff was ready to visit the hospital to assess his detective skills on real patients. Once a patient was determined to have contracted C.diff, Bomers would ask if they could bring in Cliff to do testing. Of 30 patients with the bacteria, Cliff was able to identify 25 of them — equating to 83 percent sensitivity. Conversely, he was able to identify 265 out 270 negative controls — equating to 98 percent specificity.

According to Bomers, training more dogs like Cliff could be a cheap and effective way for hospitals to routinely screen for C. difficile. Early detection of the superbug can lead to earlier treatment for patients, increasing the odds of a person's survival. Otherwise, they may not realize they have contracted the bacteria until it's too late.