A Colorado State University research scientist in the Department of Biomedical Science is training a team of dogs to sniff out avian influence in waterfowl.

The new project, slated for completion in 12-24 months, is being conducted in collaboration with USDA’s-APHIS National Wildlife Research Center and holds promise for the future of wildlife disease surveillance.

The project’s principal investigator, Richard Bowen, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences is researching a variety of viral diseases that affect domestic and wild animals as well as humans.  The project aims to train dogs to scccuessfully detect avian influenza in waterfowl and the natural environment, where infected birds leave their droppings.

Avian influenza is highly contagious among birds.  Waterfowl can carry it but often do not show symptoms.  Outbreaks, particularly of highly pathogenic strains in domestic poultry population can have devasting and costly consequences, such as in 2015 when a outbreak led to the loss of nearly 50 million domestic birds and costs of over $800 million.  In addition to poultry losses, embargoes often result because of Avian influenza outbreaks in commercial  poultry operations.

Dogs’ incredibly sensitive and sophisticated sense of smell has led to them being used for detecting a variety of things, from bombs and drugs to cancer, seizures, and other medical issues.  Trained detector dogs have proven to be valuable to wildlife research as well.

“It’s a huge economic problem,” said Glen Golden, one of research scientists working on the project.  “And waterfowl are migratory, so they are crossing the country potentially carrying these reservoirs of avian invluenza.”  Also of concern is the risk of bird flu strains mutating and potentially jumping from one species to another.

At the end of the project, the research team plans to deploy successfully trained dogs into the field with USDA wildlife specialties to provide more efficient and accurate monitoring of bird flu and how it moves, which may become even more important as migratory patterns shift with climate change.