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14 WTC search and rescue
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Maryland Firefighter John Gilkey with his dog, Bear.
Fourteen search and rescue dogs have died since their exposure to toxic rubble from the Sept. 11 terrorist attack - including eight from cancer, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. But researchers believe there is no connection between the deaths and the chemicals they were exposed to.

Despite the study's findings, some of the owners whose dogs have died still blame the toxic brew the dogs immersed themselves in during the hunt for survivors and remains.

"We can't find any link at this point that ties the 14 deaths to events of Sept. 11," said Dr. Cynthia Otto, the study's lead researcher. "Some have passed away, but the causes of death are no different than in the control group. That is good news."

Otto's team, which has been monitoring the health of 97 dogs who worked at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, did find "significantly higher" antibodies in the search dogs in the first year after the terrorist attack.

The elevated presence of antibodies, she explained, showed the dogs had been exposed to foreign substances that pressed their immune systems into higher gear.

Although Otto was heartened to find the vast majority of dogs were in good health, given the exposure and the blood changes in the first year, questions remain about possible long-term effects.

"I don't think these dogs are completely out of the woods," she said. "That is why we need to monitor these dogs until the end of their lives - for the dogs' sake and for people's sake. If there is a problem in the dogs down the line, there is a good chance a similar problem could be found in people."

Among the canine deaths was Servus, a 12-year-old Belgian Malinois police dog, who had to be carried out on a stretcher from Ground Zero after he fell into a hole face down, his snout and lungs filled with concrete dust and ash. He died of pancreatitis, Otto said.

And Anna, a 4-year-old German shepherd who spent three days crawling on her belly trying to scent any survivors, was put down Aug. 2, 2002, ravaged by an unusual bone-eating fungal infection.

"Anna had been to the vet two months before she was deployed, and her blood work and X-rays were fine," said Sarah Atlas, a New Jersey emergency medical technician and Anna's handler. "I know the university did everything they could to help her, and they say that Anna was probably genetically predisposed to the disease, but in my heart I know what I feel."

John Gilkey, a Maryland firefighter, lost his 10-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, Bear, to hepatitis last September. The dog's liver tests were not normal before the eight nights he spent on the World Trade Center pile, and blood tests and a biopsy showed disease soon afterward.

"I was surprised," Gilkey said, when he got the medical results. "But to be perfectly honest, I don't think Bear was made sick by the World Trade Center." Fighting back emotion, Gilkey added, "Bear and I had 21 months together after the diagnosis. I miss him terribly."

Dr. Philip Fox of Manhattan's Animal Medical Center, who has been monitoring the health of 30 New York City police dogs who worked at the World Trade Center, agreed with Otto's findings.

"These dogs have not been inundated by suspicious or debilitating diseases that we were afraid might occur," Fox said.

"They all had lung irritation, eye irritation and coughing in the first few weeks, but they seem to be clinically healthy almost three years later, except for a couple of animals who died of cancer that would be expected, given their age and breed."

Originally published on August 22, 2004

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