The Health of 9/11 Search and Rescue DogsPublished September 7, 2011
9/11 Rescue Dogs: Courtesy of Cynthia Otto, DVM, PhD
The 9/11 rescue dogs breathed in the same harmful substances as human responders, but with surprising results.
The aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks included the immediate search for survivors followed by the meticulous search for remains. Among the roughly 11,000 responders were an estimated 250 to 300 search and rescue (SAR) dogs.
These 9/11 rescue dogs were deployed to the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and to Fresh Kills Landfill, where debris from the WTC was taken. Some dogs arrived at the scenes on the same day as the attacks, when the air was still laden with dust and ashes from the fallen and burning buildings. Other 9/11 rescue dogs remained for months at the Fresh Kills recovery area, searching through constantly sifted debris for human remains.
Circulating particulates, asbestos, arsenic and metals, among other potentially harmful substances, were found at one or more of the search sites. Whereas human searchers at Fresh Kills wore respirators and polyethylene suits; the search and rescue dogs wore nothing.
In addition, the dogs were actively sniffing the debris while searching.
People in the areas were immediately concerned about the effects of the contaminants on their own health; the handlers of the SAR dogs were just as concerned. Now, 10 years later, controversy still rages over the human health issue. But we do have some answers about the canine health issue as it pertains to the 9/11 rescue dogs.
9/11 Rescue Dog Health Study
Cynthia Otto, DVM, PhD, Director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, began tracking the dogs in October 2001.
Out of 212 deployed handlers contacted, 95 entered the study. Fifty-five search and rescue dogs that were not deployed on September 11th were also studied as a control group. The handlers completed regular surveys about their dogs' health and behavior, and had regular blood tests and chest X-rays performed on the 9/11 rescue dogs. For any dog that died, a necropsy was requested to determine cause of death and other health information.
The study, which was funded by the AKC Canine Health Foundation, had two major goals.
- First, the shorter lifespan of dogs, combined with the tendency for any illness to progress more quickly, suggests that dogs might serve as sentinels of human disease.
- Second, by identifying both short and long-term health and behavioral changes associated with search and rescue (SAR), attempts can be made to avoid them in future deployments.
In humans, persistent respiratory problems have been reported for responders, to the point that they were sometimes said to have the "WTC cough." Up to 70% of human responders have been reported to have some sort of airway disease or abnormality. Humans have also had a reported increased incidence of heart disease and cancer.
The Health of 9/11 Rescue Dogs: Not What You Might Expect
Despite humans being drastically affected, that doesn't appear to be the case for dogs. Despite being more heavily exposed, deployed dogs had minimal lung abnormalities. The researchers theorize that the dogs' longer nasal passages may filter out much of the particulate matter and toxins, safeguarding their airways.
About 40% of deployed dogs succumbed to cancer--but the same percentage on non-deployed dogs also succumbed to cancer. The cancer with the highest rate in both groups was hemangiosarcoma, a cancer of the blood vessel lining that is common in dogs, but rare in humans.
By the time of the latest report, 77 of the 95 deployed dogs are confirmed to have died, with a median age at death of 12.5 years. Only 33 of the 55 non-deployed dogs had died, probably because the group as a whole was slightly younger at the study's start. Their median age at death was 12.4 years.
How 9/11 Rescue Dog Handlers Fared
Although most dogs lived normal life spans, handlers whose dogs died within three years of responding to the terrorist attacks had a higher incidence of post traumatic stress syndrome, demonstrating the importance of dogs to human health.
It's important to note that SAR dogs and their handlers are volunteers.
"The dogs belong to the handler and it's that team and the bond between them that makes them so amazing in the jobs that they do," says Otto.
Exposing Search and Rescue Dogs
SAR dogs were at their most visible during the 9/11 aftermath, but besides urban rescue, they play vital roles in finding people lost in the woods, under avalanches, and after almost any disaster.
9/11 Rescue Dogs After the Disaster
"These dogs are often the only hope of rapid rescue since their sensitive noses can evaluate large areas to identify even traces of human scent," says Otto, noting it takes up to two years to train SAR dogs. "They are incredibly special dogs and we need to find a way to help make them more available, support their care and really support the handlers that dedicate so much energy and money to them."
To that end Otto and her colleagues have formed the group Finding One Another to raise funds for support of medical care and research necessary for this field.
In an address at the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation Parent Club conference, Dr. Otto said they will continue to monitor the SAR dogs' health, and will in particular watch for possible trends in cancer types.
She adds: "The legacy of 9/11 has been the development of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center whose mission is to increase awareness of the important role that these dogs play and continue research in behavior, genetics and sports medicine to enhance their capacity and safety."