Smell? Dogs sent to test for disease found in cattle

COLLEGE STATION, TX (KXAN) — A Texas A&M researcher is studying how dog sniffers can be used to detect a disease that costs livestock farmers an estimated $3 billion a year in prevention, treatment and production losses.

Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in cattle and is known to be the most common disease in approximately 90% of large feedlots in the US. The disease is caused by a combination of viral and bacterial pathogens and exacerbated by environmental stressors. Diagnosis of the disease can be difficult.

“Cattle respiratory disease is a killer,” said Kurt Osuch, owner of a small cattle ranch in Brenham, Texas, about an hour from downtown Houston.

“It’s important (and) it’s endemic,” he continued. “This is what you should be vaccinated against. This is something you have to be aware of all the time.”

Because Osuch has a relatively small herd — he says he has a little under 30 cattle — he can monitor for BRD symptoms most of the time and give the calves proper medication before the disease becomes too severe.

“If you have the opportunity to look at them and observe them closely, the signs are clear,” Osuch said.

But spotting can be more difficult for ranchers with large herds. This is where Courtney Daigle, Associate Professor of Animal Science, comes into play. She is an expert in canine sense of smell.

The disease-sniffing dog phenomenon was first reported in 1989 when a dog discovered cancer in its owner. Since then, there have been several studies examining the ability of dogs to detect human diseases.

“And we have seen that (canine) sense of smell can be effective in identifying health problems in plants as well as in cattle. But we haven’t seen that happen for BRD,” Daigle said.

Anyway, for now. Daigle said she took a job at Texas A&M in 2016. Once there, she spent some time getting to know the cattle industry. While researching, she met Dr. John Richardson, who specializes in BRD.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Cordy, do you think we can use dogs to determine which one is sick?’ And I said, “I don’t know, but we can try!” she recalls with a laugh.

Using Richardson’s cattle, Agle and a graduate student began to investigate whether dogs’ sense of smell could be used to detect BRD. In their first experiment, they found that dogs were about 42% accurate. According to her, this number is about 10% more than random.

“We think it’s pretty promising,” she said. “If it didn’t work at all, it wouldn’t work at all. But (dogs) are definitely above the odds.”

After a preliminary study, they learned that they used cattle with different physiological composition, which could skew the results.

They then plan to use animals that are very similar in order to minimize any confounding factors and get a more accurate picture of a dog’s ability to detect BRD. They found two hounds ready to use and Daigle said she hopes to have another set of results this summer.

“The current approach to detecting respiratory diseases in cattle is not very effective,” she said.

“This is still a real problem. To be able to find something that’s a little out of the box that really helps a lot of people in a really meaningful way is really rewarding. I hope we can really make a good impact on livestock and cattle producers.

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