The heroes of Sept. 11, 2001 were the many rescuers – both human and canine – who combed through wreckage looking for survivors after the attacks. And while many human responders are showing respiratory health problems a decade later, their canine colleagues suffered minimal setbacks, according to a long-term study of 95 search-and-rescue dogs deployed to the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Staten Island landfills by the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
“The most striking thing is that many of the humans that responded have developed reactive airway diseases, such as asthma, sinusitis or other chronic infections in their nasal sinuses. The dogs on the other hand have fared extremely well,” says Cynthia Otto, DVM, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine associate professor of critical care and principal investigator of the research. “They’re not developing any problems with their lungs or sinuses. That is a real surprise.”
Otto points out that the vast majority of canine responders suffered minor cuts and scrapes despite not wearing protective gear. Kaiser, now a 12-year-old German Shepherd Dog, was one of only four dogs in the study that required stitches while working at Ground Zero.
“On our second day there, Kaiser sliced a pad on the pile,” says Tony Zintsmaster, Kaiser’s trainer and member of Indiana Task Force One. “Once he was stitched up and felt better, Kaiser went back to work. He was quite amazing. He was able to adapt to the situation and showed great agility. He seemed happiest when he was on the pile working.”
Zintsmaster, along with other handlers who participated in the study, submitted annual X-rays, blood samples and surveys on their dog’s health and behavior to researchers.
Tom Andert and his 12-year-old chocolate Labrador Retriever Tuff, former members of Missouri Task Force One, also participated in the study.
“Not only was my veterinarian performing the X-rays, taking the blood work and reading the results, but Dr. Otto was looking at them as well. It was a piece of mind to know that Tuff was healthy,” Andert says. “It was a comfort every time they came back and said, ‘You have a healthy dog.’”
The study also found that the average lifespan of deployed dogs was 12.5 years, while non-deployed search-and-rescue dogs lived an average 11.8 years. Today, at least 13 deployed search-and-rescue dogs that were part of the study are still alive.
“These dogs are a national resource and it’s remarkable to know how well they were able to endure such harsh conditions,” says Terry Warren, chief executive officer and general counsel of AKC Canine Health Foundation, which funded the study.
Because canine and human genomes are similar and most canine diseases also occur in humans, future research could center on learning why the search-and-rescue dogs were able to endure the challenging conditions with minimal respiratory complications.
“The findings may open our eyes to the difference between dogs and people that makes them so resilient,” Otto says. “If we could tap into that, we might actually help move human health forward.”