9/11 study shows good news

Rescue dogs used at Ground Zero and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, are not showing a higher-than-average incidence of cancer or other diseases.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BALTIMORE | September 16, 2004



"I saw nothing but good benefits coming from a study like this."

—Mike Rehfeld


Rescue dogs used at Ground Zero and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, are not showing a higher-than-average incidence of cancer or other diseases, according to a University of Pennsylvania study published Wednesday. The study may also be good news for human rescue workers.

According to a three-year study by the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, so far the dogs exposed to the hazards at the crash sites did not suffer higher rates of cancer than dogs similarly trained that did not work those sites. The study, published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, compared 97 dogs that had worked at the sites to a control group that did not.

Initially, blood tests showed that the rescue dogs demonstrated higher levels of certain toxins. The tests also showed that early on, the dogs' immune systems were working harder than the control group's. Yet as time went by, those levels decreased. "Early on, it is clear that these dogs were dealing with some stress from toxins. Although we don't currently have evidence of adverse effects, continued surveillance is still warranted," said lead researcher Cynthia M. Otto, associate professor of critical care in Penn's School of Veterinary Medicine.

The dogs will continue to be tracked, but researchers are saying this is good news for human rescue workers. "Overall, the lack of clear adverse medical or behavioral effects among the 9/11 dogs is heartening, both for the animals and the human rescue workers," said Otto. "Since dogs age more rapidly than humans, they can serve as sentinels for human disease. We are encouraged that we do not see significant increases in cancer and respiratory diseases."

That's good news for Mike Rehfeld and his dog, Boomer. They both worked at the Pentagon for two weeks after 9/11. The work was difficult and included long hours. Rehfeld remembers being excited after hearing this study was beginning three years ago. "I contacted the University of Pennsylvania about it because I'd worked with (Dr. Otto) before. I saw nothing but good benefits coming from a study like this."

Boomer, a six-year-old Labrador retriever, has shown no health problems since their time at the Pentagon, which has Rehfeld relieved. Rescue dogs and their handlers are family, he said. "The bond between the handler and the dog is similar to that of having a child."

Rehfeld and Boomer also took advantage of another side-benefit from the study. The Iams Pet Imaging Centers called up Dr. Otto one day and said if any of the handlers would like to have their dogs given free MRIs on a regular basis as another way to monitor health, then they should stop by one of their centers across the country. Boomer and Rehfeld headed to the one in Alexandria, Va.

"Those people at the (Iams) center have been great to work with, and they really care for the animals," Rehfeld said. He added that Boomer will soon be due for his third scan.

Investing in animal care

It's a busy Thursday morning at the Iams Pet Imaging Center in Alexandria. Out front, several dogs are sitting with their owners in the waiting room. In the back, an emergency case was just brought in.

Dr. Julie Smith, medical director and chief of anesthesia for the center, is working quickly with Jenny Craver, a licensed veterinary technician. They are stabilizing a dog brought in for an MRI to hopefully help determine why it's suffering from seizures.

The imaging center has been a great asset to the veterinary medical world, with MRIs offering pet owners and vets an opportunity to help seriously ill animals. While MRIs are expensive, almost every vet will tell you that an MRI helps owners avoid other more frequent, costly, and possibly incorrect medical procedures on their pets by pin-pointing the exact cause of illnesses. Both dogs and cats can have MRIs done.

The 9/11 rescue dogs that visit the center in Alexandria come in from November through January each year. So far, 24 dogs have been a part of their follow-up MRI program.

The Iams Pet Imaging Centers are state-of-the-art, most are very new, and all resemble regular hospital emergency rooms. Once the dogs are anesthesized, they are wheeled into the MRI room. The process takes about 45 minutes on average, while a technician downloads the images onto a computer and then prints them out for shipment to a veterinary radiologist for review. During that time, another technician in a separate room monitors the dog's health via computers.

All the staff involved with scanning the 9/11 rescue dogs are proud to be a part of the program.

"The 9/11 dogs have been fantastic, they come in here with such incredible stories," said Smith. "The owners know (the rescue process) is a job, but they're all very attached to their dogs. With these folks, you can really tell that their pets are their babies - the animals would not be here if they weren't their owner's babies."

Researcher Dr. Otto understands that motive, as it's what helped inspire her to conduct the rescue dog health study in the first place. "So much is invested in these dogs - so why not give them the best care?"


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