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Dogs could prove helpful in fight against chronic wasting diseases

CWD is fatal for deer, moose, and elk that become infected and there's currently no treatment or cure.

DAUPHIN COUNTY, Pa. — Two dogs spend their Friday sniffing around a field near Harrisburg, but what seems like an ordinary canine behavior could be lifesaving for another fellow animal.

“We really only have postmortem testing for CWD, so it’s hard," said Brenna Babiy, a conservation canine supervisor for the Wildlife Futures program. "We’re trying to use them in an antemortem way, so detecting it in deer that are actually on the landscape right now to see where it is.”

Since they were eight weeks old, the pups have been training through the Wildlife Futures research program, to detect CWD, or chronic wasting disease.

Wildlife Futures is a partnership between Penn Vet and the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

CWD is a contagious and fatal disease that has threatened Pennsylvania deer since 2012. It leads to weight loss, stumbling and other neurological symptoms.

There’s currently no cure or treatment.

“It’s definitely not the silver bullet coming in to eliminate CWD, but we’re hoping it will increase surveillance capacity," said Babiy.

The long incubation period of CWD makes it hard to detect but according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, a dog’s nose is 10,000 to 100,000 times better at smelling than the average human.

Research shows it can pick up the disease-specific chemicals which don’t exist in a deer that’s not infected.

“So we place both positive and negative training samples, so samples that came from deer that are known to have CWD, and samples that came from deer that are known to not have CWD," explained Babiy. "We want to make sure the dogs are distinguishing between the two.”

This is just a pilot program but the dogs are showing promise, with the hope that they will eventually be able to help serve as an early detection system for the disease.

"That’s the hope, that’s what we’re gunning for but at this point, we’re still trying to answer those questions," said Babiy.

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