A new study of search and rescue dogs showed little difference in longevity or cause of death between dogs at the disaster site and dogs in a control group. The study revealed that dogs that participated in search-and-rescue efforts following 9/11 lived a similar length of time, on average, compared to a control group of search-and-rescue dogs and outlived their breed-average life spans. There was also no discernible difference in the dogs’ cause of death.
During and in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 response, researchers reached out to handlers to recruit search-and-rescue dogs into a longitudinal study that would track their health, longevity, and cause of death. They recruited 95 dogs that had worked at the World Trade Center, Fresh Kills Landfill, or Pentagon disaster sites. As a control group, they also included in the study 55 search-and-rescue dogs that had not deployed to 9/11.
As part of being involved, the dogs received annual medical examinations, including chest X-rays and blood work. When the dogs died, the researchers paid for the handlers to have veterinarians collect samples of various organ tissues and send them for analysis at Michigan State University. Forty-four of the 9/11 dogs and 19 of the control group dogs underwent postmortems. For most of the other dogs in the study, the research team obtained information on cause of death from medical records or the handlers themselves.
While the researchers had expected to see respiratory problems in the exposed working dogs of 9/11 — conditions that have been reported by human first responders to 9/11 — they did not. While postmortem results showed that dogs that deployed after the 9/11 attacks had more particulate material in their lungs upon their death, it seems this exposure did not cause serious problems for the animals in life. The most common cause of death were age-related conditions, such as arthritis and cancer, similar to the control group.
In fact, the median age at death for 9/11 dogs was about the same as the control group: 12.8 compared to 12.7 years. The most common cause of death for the dogs that deployed was degenerative causes — typically euthanasia due to severe arthritis — followed closely by cancer, though the risk of cancer was about the same as in control group dogs.
What would help explain the fact that working search and rescue dogs exposed to toxic conditions do not live shorter lives than pet dogs? One explanation is that working dogs tend to be extremely physically fit compared to pet dogs, perhaps counteracting any ill effects of the deployment conditions on health.
Journal Reference: Cynthia M. Otto, Elizabeth Hare, John P. Buchweitz, Kathleen M. Kelsey, Scott D. Fitzgerald. Fifteen-year surveillance of pathological findings associated with death or euthanasia in search-and-rescue dogs deployed to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack sites. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2020; 257 (7): 734 DOI: 10.2460/javma.257.7.734