Despite the fact that the first known scientific experiment using dogs’ olfactory abilities dates back to the late nineteenth century [1
], only limited scientific research has ever taken advantage of these animals’ sense of smell (e.g. [2
]). Air-scent detection dogs are widely used by law enforcement agencies to identify narcotics, explosives, and contraband, and also by fire investigators to detect the presence of accelerant materials. Detector canines are also used by police, military, and rescue service to locate missing or lost peoples, natural or mass disasters victims, and for locating partial scattered human remains [4
]. Thirty kinds of detector dogs have been documented [2
], and recently dogs were used for bed bugs detection as a safer alternative to blind pesticide use [5
], but to the best of our knowledge there are no cases of dogs having been trained to detect wildlife diseases.
In the field of wildlife conservation, there are two key factors in disease monitoring and control (when the latter is feasible or desirable): (i) the rapid detection and removal of infected carcasses, and (ii) the rapid and accurate identification, separation and capture of the infected animals for treatment or euthanasia, if indicated [6
]. Both infected carcasses and sick animals are potential sources of infection for conspecifics, the other sympatric animals and even humans [9
]. The fore mentioned mandatory tasks are often difficult and/or impracticable to accomplish, especially: (a) when carcasses are scattered across a wide geographic area and are difficult to spot: e.g. due to presence of snow-cover or thick vegetation, (b) in cases involving shy and social species, : e.g. in which attempts to segregate sick animals from the rapidly escaping herds they belong to, are usually unsuccessful and, if repeated, may also favor spreading of the disease due to disturbance [12
]. And (c) when the diseases in question have no visible external symptoms: e.g. in the case of animals where initial skin lesions are occulted by a long fur [13
The ubiquitous ectoparasite Sarcoptes scabiei
infect more than 100 species of mammals, worldwide [14
]. It is a neglected emerging and re-emerging parasite [16
], threatening the conservation of global biodiversity [18
]. In Sarcoptes
, host specificity is a long lasting matter of debate [9
], and epidemiological patterns clearly differ from one area or animal species to another [14
]. Amongst consequences of Sarcoptes
uncontrolled spreading are severe mortality in wild and (poorly managed) domestic animals [12
mite infections are endemic in many wild animals, above all in canids in North America, Europe and Australia, cats in Europe and Africa, ruminants and wild boars in Europe, ruminants and great apes in Africa, wombats and koalas in Australia [12
infection in these hosts is accompanied, amongst other signs, with extensive hyperkeratosis and the formation of thick crusts. Lesions easily get infected with bacteria and animals develop a foul aromatic odour [13
]. For parasitologists, the odour of a mangy animal is unique and distinguishable (even no specific study has been carried out in this direction), hence it seemed reasonable to figure out that dogs could be trained to recognize and localize the sources of such special odour under field conditions.
The aim of this paper is to report the use of trained disease-detector dogs in a sarcoptic mange (scabies) outbreak area in the Alps, where they significantly contributed to enhance the level of disease surveillance and control compared with traditionally available tools. Our study was empirically based and originated from an immediate need of the local wildlife service at the beginning of an unexpected sarcoptic mange outbreak.