Veterinary Vertex

Unveiling the Heroic World of Search and Rescue Dogs: Insights from a 15-Year Longitudinal Study

October 31, 2023 AVMA Journals
Veterinary Vertex
Unveiling the Heroic World of Search and Rescue Dogs: Insights from a 15-Year Longitudinal Study
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Uncover the heroic world of search and rescue dogs as we welcome Cindy Otto and Abby Seeley to the Veterinary Vertex podcast. This episode promises to dig into a 15-year longitudinal study that unveils the occupational hazards, longevity, and overall health of these unsung heroes, shedding light on how veterinary care and mental engagement impact these canines' lives. In our conversation with Cindy, you'll also learn about the PennVet Working Dog Center.

As we move further, the focus shifts to the valuable insights this groundbreaking study provides for the veterinary field. Abby, a fourth-year veterinary student, shares her experiences and how this research is revolutionizing her perception of veterinary medicine. Get ready to be inspired as our guests detail their preparation for the podcast and the opportunity to share their work with our listeners. So, brace yourselves for an insightful and inspirational episode, as we dive into the extraordinary lives of search and rescue dogs.

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Sarah Wright:

You're listening to Veterinary Vertex, a podcast of the AVMA Journals. In this episode, we chat about the results of a 15-year longitudinal study of search and rescue dogs with our guests Cindy Otto and Abby Seeley.

Lisa Fortier:

Welcome to Veterinary Vertex. I'm Editor-in-Chief Lisa Fortier, and I'm joined by Associate Editor Sarah Wright. Today we have a really exciting episode. I can't wait to hear more from Cindy and Abby, who are joining us. Cindy and Abby, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day to be with us here today. Thank you, guys, for having us.

Sarah Wright:

Yeah, thank you so much for joining us. Let's dive right in. Cindy, can you share with our listeners what they can expect from your JAVMA article?

Cynthia Otto:

In this article and it's one of a series that we've done we have looked at the search and rescue dogs that deployed to 9-11 and a group of dogs that didn't deploy. We're following these dogs for their lifetime, from 2001 until they naturally passed. One of the things that we were really interested in is whether or not these dogs have a higher risk of medical conditions associated with the type of work they do. We're looking for occupational hazards that might display as different medical problems than perhaps other types of dogs, pet dogs or either other types of working dogs.

Sarah Wright:

That's absolutely fascinating. I know it's something too that we were just talking about could be important as well for potentially just the general public to learn about too, especially in that keen interest in 9-11. Abby, what were some important insights from this article?

Abigail Seeley:

I think one important thing to know is just that this work is being done. There is all this research going into the search and rescue dogs and working dogs as a whole. I think some important notes come from what the veterinarian can gain from this information, and just keeping these dogs working as long as possible is super important. There's real life costs when these dogs retire or can't work anymore, and so keeping these dogs healthy as long as possible is super important.

Lisa Fortier:

Yeah, they've given a lot to us. We should give back, right.

Cynthia Otto:

I think one of the things as veterinarians we want to make sure that these dogs are healthy and we're doing the best things that we can. Knowing what kind of risks they have help us design what kind of preventive health programs or what kind of things to be monitoring for. I think it's exciting because what we've found is that we have three main areas that are affected the musculoskeletal system, the integumentary system and the GI system. We have a lot of things as veterinarians that we can do to actually make things better. I think one of the things that we're really interested in here at the PennVet Working Dog Center is the impact of sports medicine and that physical fitness, that physical conditioning, keeping these dogs strong and maybe preventing some of the onset of particularly delaying arthritis or keeping them strong so we have fewer injuries related to the musculoskeletal system. So that's a really big focus that we've seen in our trajectory and sports medicine is a relatively new area in veterinary medicine and we're excited to kind of push that forward, particularly in these professional athletes.

Lisa Fortier:

That's a good point, Cindy, like in equine obviously, I've been an equine surgeon for more than 30 years We've been more proactive in keeping our athletes going. Obviously, there are some hunting dogs, but there's a lot to learn throughout veterinary medicine, not just from the human side but from across the entire spectrum of veterinary medicine to help these search and rescue dogs.

Cynthia Otto:

Absolutely, and we're very excited about that.

Lisa Fortier:

Cindy, if I'm right I mean, I know you're a full tenure professor, but if I'm right, you founded the PennVet. I think it's called PennVet Working Dog Group.

Cynthia Otto:

Yeah, the PennVet Working Dog Center was an idea that I, with lots of help and lots of inspiration, but I really pushed it forward and we started talking about it in 2002. In 2012, we were able to actually open the center and it is a research, training and education center for detection dogs. It's inspired by the work that I did at 9-11, and we actually talk about it as the legacy of 9-11. We opened it on September 11th in 2012, and all of the dogs that are in our program, where we raise and train them for detection work and we study lots of different aspects of their health and their performance they're all named after dogs that worked at 9-11. So many of the dogs in this study or victims of 9-11. And so there is a really strong emphasis here of trying to take what was a really horrific event and looking for something positive to come out of that, and we feel like we've made a really big impact, not only looking back at the dogs that worked, but moving forward and applying all of this information, particularly our sports, medicine and other aspects of the research for dogs, going forward into not only search and rescue but law enforcement and also other detection fields.

Lisa Fortier:

Well, you're really an inspiration. When I first got your manuscript in JAVMA, I googled you, of course, and found your Penn Vet Working Dog Center. It's really amazing, amazing, what you've done. So thank you on behalf of veterinary medicine and for all the working dogs.

Cynthia Otto:

Well, and I think Abby can speak to the experience. She's currently a fourth year veterinary student rotating with us at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, so the timing is perfect. So Abby can speak to what that experience is like.

Abigail Seeley:

I mean really in veterinary school education. If I feel like if I wasn't at Penn Vet I don't know how much of an exposure I would get to working dogs, and so having this center here, the ability to rotate through, having classes or Dr. Otto and other sportsmen and working professionals come and talk to us, has been great. It's turned into this aspect of veterinary medicine that I love, and I can't see not doing in my future. And I mean the rotation's been great, having that as an option. Even students that have no experience in working dog medicine get to come out here and see what's done. And I think just even having that on your radar as a veterinarian when you're going into practice is so important because it is nuanced. There are differences between taking care of a working dog from a veterinary standpoint and taking care of a pet dog, and just being able to tackle that if you do see it in practice is super important.

Lisa Fortier:

Yeah, thank you both, Cindy. What originally sparked your research interest in search and rescue and working dogs?

Cynthia Otto:

That's a great question. So my veterinary path has been quite circuitous. I started off in veterinary school wanting to be a dairy vet and I changed my mind as a great opportunity in veterinary medicine in general. So we have so many options and I followed a path into emergency medicine and in that path I got exposed to these dogs that were working in the field and needed emergency veterinary care or wanted to be educated on emergency veterinary care. So I started to learn about search and rescue dogs and it was back in 1993 that I started to become involved with the team and I was part of that team and I joined a FEMA urban search and rescue task force and worked with them and deployed to Hurricane Floyd down in North Carolina. And then obviously the big event was 9-11. And so I deployed with the team to 9-11. And because I also have a PhD in physiology and a very curious mind, I'm constantly asking questions and as we were on deployment people were saying, oh, the dogs are having all sorts of problems and I'm like, oh, if they are, we need to know. Through the AKC K9 Health Foundation they funded us to evaluate the dogs, to observe what happened at the event, but not just that, but follow these dogs for this lifetime study, which has been so impactful, and that involvement with these search and rescue dogs really helped me convert from my specialty in emergency and critical care. I then became boarded in sports medicine because I felt like that really impacted these dogs and needing the science, needing the research, needing the education. We just had a group of people who saw that vision and we had some wonderful donors who helped us open the door, and all of the staff, volunteers and the students and the people who donated dogs to the program so that we could raise and train these dogs and put them out into the world to do their jobs and in the best way for their health, their well-being, their welfare. All of these aspects are part of it and, yeah, it's been an amazing adventure and we're so excited to have this here and to be able to welcome students not only from PennVet, but we have students from all over that come and rotate with us.

Lisa Fortier:

Yeah, we have a wonderful profession. You just never know what's around the corner. I went from I thought I was going to be a rodeo vet and I'm an Editor- in-C hief at JAVMA. So keep that in mind, Abby, as you, and Sarah too, as you move along Like it's just a fascinating profession and Abby other than obviously Cindy's an amazing role model and mentor. But what else? And you said you were exposed to working dogs in veterinary school as maybe a lecture. What inspired you to do this research?

Abigail Seeley:

I think I mean it started in a. You know I started in COVID, so a lot of my classes were virtual. My first year I you feel this like lack of community in that year and I ended up taking this class on emergency preparedness and response. That's a lot of the FEMA, similar to the FEMA work that Cindy did down in during the hurricane Floyd and during that she came and lectured about then her work in 9-11. And I reached out to her afterwards and it was just like I am absolutely fascinated by this work. I'm looking for any opportunity to get involved during a global pandemic. And she graciously took me on and told me about this incredible database that we have from the 9-11 working dogs and then to also have a control group of search and rescue dogs. Like she said, this is a series of articles and the information that we're gaining from that database is just incredible and to be able to have some role in that. There was no way I was going to pass up that opportunity.

Lisa Fortier:

So yeah, good for you An opportunity not to kick the door. But it's one thing, Abby, to get involved and try to get into somebody's laboratory and get the database. It's a whole other kind of a fish to get the article written, the manuscript written, submitted, edited. What inspired you to get all the way through and get this article finally through the publication?

Abigail Seeley:

I think mentorship has been huge in collaboration. Dr. Otto is an incredible mentor through life things as well as research, and we've also worked with Naomi and Kaya Kaya being my co-first author over in New Zealand who are PhD epidemiologists, and having such strong female mentors also in the field has just been great. They made it easy to want to get this accomplished and to want to be as cool as them when I grow up, so that's really been a driving force throughout the whole thing.

Lisa Fortier:

There you go, Cindy you're cool, I made it. It is actually Abby, it's a really good point. Like I vividly remember, I was writing probably what was the most like the pinnacle manuscript that turned my career in a different direction, and it was around the holiday season. I was coming unglued: Three young kids, on clinics, emergency care. I'm Christian. I didn't have any Christmas gifts purchased, I didn't have any cookies made, I didn't have any cards sent out, and I was like panicking. And this woman said to me it doesn't matter if Christmas cookies get made the day after Christmas, the kids won't know. And I was like, oh all right, good. And so when you spoke about like mentorship and just those life things and that's important for everybody to share their stress, right, and just say, well, I'm struggling here and somebody can just give you a tiny piece of sage wisdom, and you're like, all right, I'm not alone. Okay, all right, cool Cindy, what do you think is the most surprising information from this article?

Cynthia Otto:

I think probably we were expecting to see things that affected the search and rescue dogs, that weren't common in our regular pet dog population or in other working dog populations, and what we found is that search and rescue dogs are really not experiencing anything crazy or unexpected. You know, we think about the exposures that they have and the environments that they work in and you know this whole concern and really the dogs are doing incredibly well on a general physical capacity and they're not having unexpected medical conditions and I think that speaks a lot to the veterinary care that they're getting, the commitment of the handlers and that partnership between veterinarians and handlers to keep these dogs healthy and then keep monitoring them. I'd like to highlight from a previous study that we published in JAVMA about the mortality of the dogs we looked at the causes of death and to me the biggest take home message from that, that manuscript, was that on average, search and rescue dogs, whether they were deployed to 9-11 or not, live to be about 12 and a half and when we look at the averages reported for those breeds from the AKC and just the general databases out there, that's much longer than our pet dogs and so I think whether it's the veterinary care, whether it's their physical fitness, whether it's the mental engagement because we know these dogs are really actively engaged physically and mentally. It really is good for these dogs and it's exciting to know that working dogs should be working and that we can support that and that relationship is good for all of us, and so that was really reassuring that what we're doing and asking of these dogs is not harming them but actually may be benefiting them.

Sarah Wright:

That's great news for the search and rescue dog community. So thank you so much for sharing your findings with JAVMA. Cindy, you touched a little bit on your background already, but how did your advanced training prepare you to write this article?

Cynthia Otto:

So I think that my advanced training is again. I have a PhD in physiology. I did basic lab research for years. I'm an emergency and critical care board-certified clinician and now I'm a sports medicine board-certified clinician and I think that route has given me a lot of sort of flexibility of thinking and curiosity. But I think the other piece of my advanced training is that knowing when to reach out to collaborators so reaching out to Naomi Cogger and Katja Isakson in New Zealand and really allowing them to contribute their expertise in epidemiology in the working dog realm, and also reaching out to Abby and giving her the freedom to really try this and take this on I think that's probably, you know, has been the best part of my training. It's that evolution.

Sarah Wright:

Collaboration is so important, and it's great to hear, too, that you have a great mentorship relationship too. So, Abby, as a fourth year student, how did that training prepare you to write this manuscript?

Abigail Seeley:

I think this has become a huge part of my training and my veterinary experience. We get a lot of, you know, clinical general practice, practical skills and going to be a veterinarian, and they think it's easy to forget that we're also scientists, and so having this kind of undercurrent of working on this project for the last two and a half years has made me a better critical thinker, a better scientist, and it's just given me skills that I plan on taking into my career throughout, whether it's publishing more papers or just being able to think critically about things. And all of that has come from Dr Otto, Naomi, Kaya.

Sarah Wright:

They've all brought something else to the table, so that's great to hear. I actually did my first manuscript too when I was in vet school all between third and fourth year and, like you said, the skills that you gained are just invaluable as far as understanding what goes into manuscript preparation, being able to analyze other articles and just really makes you a world more well rounded too as a veterinarian.

Abigail Seeley:

Completely. I had no idea really what I was getting into when I started, and I mean that in like the dearest of terms, but it's really been incredible just getting to do the whole process from start to finish, be involved in it. As an undergrad I've worked in research labs, but I don't even know if those have been published yet. Like you just don't get to. I've gotten to see bits and pieces throughout my education and that's helped me publish this paper. But being with something kind of from the us meeting for the first time and talking about what kind of paper we wanted this to be to now it being published has been such a great learning experience and at JAVMA and AJVR we definitely want a reward outstanding student and house officer authors too.

Sarah Wright:

So we actually started the journal awards two years ago. So these are awards, like I said, for student and house officers who are first author on their article, and it's a really great, fabulous process and a good way to acknowledge you and to hopefully help you, too, in the future with your research career. So we hope it's something that you consider for this year.

Abigail Seeley:

I think getting students involved is good for the future and being involved is a great thing to encourage, definitely.

Sarah Wright:

We actually have student reviewers and associate editors too and it's just so rewarding. They're definitely some of my favorite meetings, usually at the end of a day I think it's on a Wednesday and you know, most of the day meetings you'd be like, oh it's the end of the day, but these ones I love them because it's so refreshing and the students are just so excited and happy. So, Abby, too, if that's ever something you're interested in definitely let us know.

Lisa Fortier:

Yeah.

Sarah Wright:

So these next set of questions are really important for our listeners. Cindy, what is one piece of information the veterinarian should know before discussing this topic with the client?

Cynthia Otto:

So I think that veterinarians should really understand what search and rescue dogs do, the commitment that these handlers provide for the dogs and how they can work together with the owner handler of these dogs to enhance the health and well-being. So thinking about the musculoskeletal system and one of the simplest things is just body condition score Is this dog of an appropriate weight? I mean, that's probably one of the most important things and easiest things, but almost one of the hardest things that we have to discuss with clients. Thinking about skin health and nutrition and how all of that impacts. I think that probably one of the things that is underrepresented in our data set is, under the gastrointestinal system, vomiting and diarrhea probably wasn't reported as often as it really happened. Working here with 30 working dogs in our program, we know vomiting and diarrhea happens every week and so it's probably underrepresented. So thinking about how can we enhance the health of the dogs in that regard nutritionally, but also thinking about probiotics and prebiotics and avoiding some of the drugs that maybe could impact their olfactory system. We know that in AJVR several years ago, there was a paper published on the effect of metronidazole on olfactory function and we definitely try to limit the use of drugs like metronidazole if it's not indicated based on the pathology of diarrhea. So we've really gotten away from sort of the empiric use of that and that can impact the health of the dog but also can impact their performance, and so veterinarians need to understand that when we're caring for these dogs we have to think about it in the realm of how these dogs are going to be working and in their careers and how that might impact our health and welfare, their ability to maybe find a person, and so we want to be supporting those dogs and those handlers in that regard.

Sarah Wright:

The knee jerk metronidazole prescription is definitely a thing. We actually have a podcast episode about that, as well as a few articles in JAVMA. So, as you said, AJVR as well, something that's really important that we're trying to bring awareness to just having that strong, evidence-based practice, absolutely, absolutely. So on the other side of the relationship, Abby, what is one piece of information the client should know about this topic?

Abigail Seeley:

I just want to say a little bit earlier, but really just that this research is being done, that we care about search and rescue dogs as much as their handlers do. The handler search for working dog relationship is one of the greatest relationships, I think, to be able to experience firsthand these handlers know so much about their dogs and are so in tune to their health and to let them know that we're doing the work on our end to try and figure out ways to make them live longer and have healthy working lives for as long as possible and keep them working. We want the same for their dogs.

Lisa Fortier:

Fascinating. Thank you again. As we start to wind down the timing on our podcast, we ask a couple little bit more personal questions. So the first one to go to Cindy. Clearly you're definitely accomplished and really an inspiration to everybody who knows you. I would see, where did your resilience Abby's waving for those of you who are on the podcast, Cindy, where did your resilience, inspiration, determination, where did it come from?

Cynthia Otto:

I think that's a great question and I think it's probably making mistakes. And so here at the Word and Doug Center we say we don't make mistakes, we make opportunities. And how that came? That probably came from my dad, so he was definitely, you know, sort of push, push on through things. I think the curiosity is also really helpful, because if we can be curious about why things happen, then it becomes much more about finding out new information as opposed to kind of stewing over what other issues. And then I think probably some of my best resilience came from my one dog that I had and he taught me so much about operant conditioning and positive reinforcement, training and that bond, that relationship and communicating with dogs. And I think that that it is an incredible part of our opportunity and I think sometimes as veterinarians we get so focused on the doses that we forget to communicate with our patients and implementing cooperative care and really paying attention to that. It helps us because it feeds back. And so when things get tough and you know you feel like you're up against something if you connect, and whether it's connecting with your the animals, with your patients, with your clients, with your colleagues, I think that really helps get us through some of the ups and downs, because definitely it's. It is a it's a bit of a roller coaster ride that we're on, but it is exciting.

Lisa Fortier:

Thank you, abby. How about you? You're clearly one of the elite few veterinary students who get manuscripts published. So where did your inspiration, resilience, come from?

Abigail Seeley:

You know, a theme of this whole podcast and is true in my life is just to seek out opportunities and to know when to say yes when they present themselves. I think when you see something as an opportunity or a chance and you're grateful to have the option to do something like that or publish a manuscript even just take the summer class that introduced me to Dr. Otto it makes it all a lot easier to want to do and to work hard to get it accomplished. And I think in veterinary school I'm surrounded right now particularly with some of the greatest minds in veterinary medicine and upcoming, you know, research and clinical practice, and I want to absorb as much as I can while I'm here and so just looking at things as opportunities rather than things you have to do I think makes a huge difference.

Lisa Fortier:

Very good. Well, I have love this conversation. Just one more question that we actually really find very fun as well. I mean, what was your first concert live concert that you attended?

Abigail Seeley:

I was thinking about this and I think my first live concert was like Disney Channel duo Allie and AJ. My dad works in live entertainment and concerts specifically, so I've seen quite a few over my lifetime. So that's probably my first one, which isn't very exciting, but I think one of my favorite ones was probably Metallica. We got to see their movie concert premiere because my dad worked on it, so that was a very cool experience. I didn't expect that from someone you're going to be shocked. Yeah, people are always very shocked about that.

Cynthia Otto:

Yeah, but you know, I think that does mean so much in this realm. I really did. I have a few memories, I don't know my first one, I think. Probably one of the ones that was most memorable, though, was the Indigo girls. It was in a small venue, and it was really, really fun.

Sarah Wright:

We love asking that question. It's so fun to learn more about our interviewees. Prior to this, we were asking people what was in their desk drawer, and that was always fun too. They put out a tis from a cat from like years ago, like a fossil or something. So yeah, no, it's fun. We love getting to know our authors too.

Cynthia Otto:

So one of the things that we're excited about for veterinarians who are interested in learning more about working dogs and being able to really do the best possible job for the dogs and the handlers is a certificate program that we've developed here at the Penn Vet Working Dogs Center called the Working Dog Practitioner and that is 80 hours of continuing education. Part of it is online, Part of it is in person and hands on and if people are interested in that it's at wwwworkingdogpractitionercom. That's working dog practitioner, all one word. And if people want to just experience that, the very first module on scent detection dogs is free and you know you can get a sense of what's involved. But we really value veterinarians input and the collaboration and we think this is a way that veterinarians can participate so much more fully with these dogs and handlers.

Sarah Wright:

Thank you, it sounds like an awesome opportunity.

Cynthia Otto:

We're excited about it, and Abby's actually doing it too, so it's really fun.

Sarah Wright:

Thank you again, Cindy and Abby, so much we appreciate your contribution to JAVMA for spending your morning with us to talking more about your article.

Cynthia Otto:

Sarah, thank you so much for the opportunity. It's been great, and even the prep for this has been fun, because Abby and I got to know each other a little bit better, even and you know explored some different aspects, and so really appreciate the opportunity to share our experience and our work.

Sarah Wright:

Great to hear this. Thank you so much again, and to our listeners. You can read Cindy and Abby's manuscript in print JAVMA or on our journals website. I'm Sarah Wright with Lisa Fortier. You want to thank each of you for joining us on this episode of the veterinary vertex podcast. We'd love sharing cutting edge veterinary research with you and we want to hear from you. Be sure to leave us a rating and review on Apple podcasts or whatever platform you

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