Specially trained sniffer dogs could be used to detect badgers infected with bovine tuberculosis – helping to stop the spread of the disease in cattle.
Dogs trained to detect the odour of human disease could also be trained to detect badger setts infected with bovine TB, say experts.
Infected setts could then be destroyed, allowing healthy setts to remain, they claim. Doing so could avoid the need for a mass cull of infected and healthy badgers.
The charity Medical Detection Dogs, which already trains dogs to help people with life threatening health conditions, said it had held initial talks with DEFRA about the idea.
Charity chief executive Claire Guest told Farmers Weekly there was evidence that bovine TB had its own distinct odour, which dogs could detect.
“There is no question in our mind that we would be able to train dogs to detect an infected badger sett as opposed to a sett where the badgers are healthy,” she said.
Detection would involve odour being collected from badger setts using special filters.
“You wouldn’t have the difficulties of a mass cull, you would be simply culling animals that would in time be developing the full-blown disease and becoming very sick anyway.”
Dr Claire Guest, Medical Detection Dogs
The filters would then be taken to a laboratory and placed on a carousel where a specially trained dog would detect whether it was infected.
This would avoid a scenario where dogs would be sniffing around badger setts.
“The most effective way of doing this would be to collect samples from setts and bring them to the dogs,” said Dr Guest. Any infected setts could then be targeted for destruction.
Dr Guest said she was aware bovine TB was an extremely emotive issue and she wouldn’t want any work to have a detrimental effect on what was a small charity.
But she added: “You wouldn’t have the difficulties of a mass cull, you would be simply culling animals that would in time be developing the full-blown disease and becoming very sick anyway.”
Using animals to detect tuberculosis has already been carried out successfully in other countries.
Rats have been used to detect tuberculosis in human sputum in Tanzania.
See more news on the cull on our badger cull page