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Man's best friend is man's health sentinel
By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY, March 27, 2002

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, man's best friend was on the scene, working tirelessly. Now, medical experts want to give these search-and-rescue dogs a hand — and at the same time learn valuable lessons that may apply to humans as well. A pair of studies underway aims to follow the police dogs and canine search teams who patrolled the wreckage of the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Amid rising concerns about the long-term health effects on rescue workers there from toxins at the crash sites, the dogs may serve as medical sentinels for future ailments.

"Our big concern is carcinogens like asbestos and concrete dust (that) we are concerned could lead to cancer," says critical care veterinarian Cynthia Otto of the University of Pennsylvania, part of a group of researchers, physicians and psychologists who have begun a three-year study of the search-and-rescue mission's health effects.

About 300 dog-and-handler teams worked at the Pentagon and World Trade Center sites. "We worked 16-hour days," says Otto, who assisted the canine search-and-rescue team's efforts at the World Trade Center site for eight days after the tragedy, alongside other veterinarians. "The dogs were exhausted, they worked really hard. It was much more of an endurance test than we anticipated."

Her team will focus mainly on about 100 Federal Emergency Management Agency team dogs, taking regular chest X-rays and blood tests to check for dangerous levels of chemicals. Cancers that take decades to manifest in people would appear in a few years in the dogs, Otto says. Her colleagues will survey the psychological effects of the searches, where very few survivors were found, on the human handlers.

Another 200 privately owned dogs will have their health monitored through regular surveys. For statistical purposes, the study dogs will be matched to similar search dogs that didn't participate in the post-Sept. 11 efforts, to make sure health effects are truly caused by the disaster recovery.

A second study conducted by New York's Animal Medical Center will focus on police and bomb-detecting dogs at the sites. That effort will screen dogs for anthrax as well.

In general, dogs have a faster metabolism, weigh less and live shorter lives than people, so toxins affect them more quickly, Otto says. Carcinogens in ash that people might shed when they remove the day's clothes linger on dog fur, she says.
"It's very important to us that the health of these dogs who serve so well be protected," says Deborah Lynch of the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation, which is supporting the efforts. Her group is still trying to raise $80,000 to fund the $400,000 studies, which will ensure treatment for dogs that get sick.

One World Trade Center search dog, a Belgian Malinois named Servus, died last week after damaging his lungs when he fell into ash at the site. "That really motivated us to support tracking the dogs," Lynch says.

Training a dog in minimum search-and-rescue skills requires two years of daily instruction. The most advanced skills take four years to learn. Privately training one dog represents at least a $10,000 investment, Lynch says, and they often aren't covered by veterinary insurance. "People don't realize those 300 dogs used after the disasters were about all we had. If they were wiped out by one disaster, we couldn't just run out and get more."


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