Can dogs catch a whiff of bovine respiratory disease?

Canines could potentially detect disease that is the greatest challenge to the cattle industry


A Texas A&M AgriLife researcher is taking a page out of human disease research to see if dogs might be able to sniff out bovine respiratory disease, BRD, one of the largest health challenges for the feedlot cattle industry.

Courtney Daigle, Ph.D., an animal welfare specialist in the Texas A&M Department of Animal Science in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and her doctoral student, Aiden Juge, are beginning the second round of training to determine if dogs can routinely and accurately detect BRD in cattle.

She works with BRD expert John Richeson, Ph.D., from West Texas A&M University in Canyon, and dog training expert Nathan Hall, Ph.D., from Texas Tech University. Hall specializes in canine olfaction, otherwise known as a dog’s sense of smell, and Richeson supplied the first set of nasal swabs from cattle used in the pilot study.

The results of the team’s first study were recently published in two major journals: Canine olfaction as a disease detection technology: A systematic review in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, and Using Canine Olfaction to Detect Bovine Respiratory Disease: A Pilot Study in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

Canine olfactory capacity has been successfully used to detect and diagnose human diseases, and this team is looking to expand that success. For BRD, Daigle said their pilot testing helped illuminate what training, equipment and other parameters are needed to increase the rate of accurate predictability.

Now the team is starting their second study, utilizing cattle at the Texas A&M McGregor Research Center in Central Texas and guard dogs from the prison in Huntsville.

Bovine respiratory disease effects on the industry

Daigle said this technology could revolutionize how antimicrobial treatment is applied in commercial beef production. Currently, cattle health is evaluated at the group level, resulting in mass administration of antimicrobials to an entire group, irrespective of individual animal health status.

— BRD is a leading worldwide cause of cattle morbidity and mortality due to the lack of reliable testing and limited vaccine efficacy.

— Cattle with BRD are challenging to identify and diagnose.

— The prevalence of BRD in U.S. feedlot cattle has been reported at 16.2%.

“We propose that appropriately trained dogs will accurately and rapidly predict BRD risk in individual cattle, and communicate that information to humans in real time, resulting in a targeted approach to controlling BRD using antimicrobials,” she said.

This research could catalyze a paradigm shift in how feed yards use antimicrobials. Producers will utilize the dogs’ superior olfactory system for chute-side disease detection.

“A well-trained dog and handler positioned near the chute creates a scenario where the dog can quickly and calmly evaluate restrained cattle and signal a diagnostic decision to the handler,” Daigle said. “Metaphylactic application would then transition from group application to implementation on an individual animal basis.”

Treating only the animals that the dogs indicate truly need intervention would reduce drug cost and use compared to the current methods. Additionally, this will demonstrate that the livestock industry is demonstrating improved antimicrobial stewardship and promoting cattle welfare, while providing the global population with high-quality protein.


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