Handler and Canine Deployment Survey

Lori E. Gordon, DVM


Summary of Findings

Regarding search canines, the majority of those in the survey were Labrador Retrievers (43%, 10 of 23). When including all deployed canines, German Shepherds were a close second (10 canines) to the Labrador Retrievers (11 canines). The majority of survey canines were male neuter (65%), and the most common age range was 6 to just under 8 years. More than half (61%) were between 60-74 pounds.

Arrival in Haiti spanned 4 days, January 13-16, 2010. Most of the handler-canine teams (61%, 14 of 23) arrived January 14, 2010, which was 2 days after the earthquake occurred. Their stay in Haiti ranged from 7 to 14 days, with most staying 11 days. Their demobilization ranged over 5 days, January 22-27, 2010, with most departing the last 3 of those days (74%, 17 of 23).

Billeting was at the Base of Operations. Two Task Forces were based at Port au Prince’s Toussaint Loverture Airport, while the other 4 stayed at the Embassy grounds in Port-au-Prince.

Work during the day shift was most common. Most canines worked 5-10 days (78%, 18 of 23) and most common was 8 day shifts. There was a wide range of travel times, from 30 minutes to 6 hours. Shift times (including travel) also ranged, from 2 to more than 12 hours, with most working 8 to just under 12 hours.

Working the night shifts was less common. Many canines did no night shifts but 43% (10 of 23) worked 1-3 of them. There was a wide range of travel times, from 30 minutes to 4 hours. Shift times (including travel) also ranged, from 1 to more than 12 hours, with most working 1 to 7 hours.

Day or night shifts, actual search periods were multiples of 20-30 minutes at a time.

All survey canines were on preventative heartworm preventative and flea and tick preventative at the time of deployment. All canines that were due for additional medications during their deployment received them. More than half, 57% (13 of 23), received additional flea and tick doses within the first week of their deployment.

Regarding canine physical examinations, 65% (15 of 23) received Pre-Mission Examinations, 52% (12 of 23) received Pre-shift Examinations, 70% (16 of 23) received Post-shift Examinations, 61% (14 of 23) received Demobilization Examinations. The majority of Pre-mission and Demobilization Examinations were by a licensed veterinarian. The majority of Pre-shift and Post-shift examinations were by the handler.

Injuries and illness were incurred by 10 of the 23 canines (43%). Eight of them had multiple issues. Dehydration (30%) and wounding (26%) comprised the majority of medical conditions seen. Medical records were not consistently kept. All issues were resolved, ranging from the same day to 2 weeks.

Information about endemic hazards was related to about half (52%m 10 of 19) of the handlers. Five additional handlers may have received information, but their survey answers were inconsistent. Among the more commonly related hazards were Leptospirosis, Giardia, infectious diarrhea, Rabies, Mange, Flea and tick carriers, and parasites (hookworms, screwworms, tapeworms). The medical officer was the most common source of this information.

Decontamination was performed for every canine that worked (22 of 22). One HRD canine did not have any search work. The majority (95%, 21 of 22) had decontamination after their searches. All except one canine was decontaminated after every single shift. The majority, 82% (18 of 22) had soap and water.

Subcutaneous fluids were given to several canines (specific number is unknown) before their shifts, not as a treatment for dehydration but as a supplement to their oral intake. Others received subcutaneous fluids in lieu of oral rehydration when faced with public display of watering their canines in front of the populace that was deficient in drinking water.

Post-Mission examinations and tests were performed for 83% within 7-10 days, and 78% got additional testing at 30-40 days post demobilization. No reports of clinical illness or injury were reported.



Data Interpretation and Comments

Body Weights

This information guides cache purchases w/r to number of and distribution of sizes of supplies (like tubes, stomach and catheters) as well as drug quantities.

Days in Haiti

The need for acclimatization to a new environment, with respect to ambient temperature, humidity, and in some cases elevation, affects a canine’s work performance. Body temperature has been shown as the most important factor in limiting performance during search in hot climate zones. Although it takes up to 20 days to fully acclimatize, demonstrable lower strain on the canines may be seen within 4 days.

What day of the deployment a medical problem occurred was not assessed, so there is no evidence that dehydration or injury occurred more during the first 4-5 days, or later.

Travel Time

One handler reported that although the work/search areas were dusty, the worst was the thick dust ingested during some of the transport, which was often open-air or in the back of an open box truck.

Interestingly, none of the World Trade Center canines have shown evidence of the respiratory difficulties that have occurred in the human WTC workers. The longer nasal passages and necessity for nasal breathing during scent work may have more effectively filtered the particulate matter and toxins.

Prevention Medicine

It is unknown if the additional doses of flea & tick preventative were given because they were due (monthly products), given because of an increased risk of exposure along with uncertainty in the preventative effectiveness, or the K9 was not receiving these during the winter months (Virginia and New York). Another factor may be that some of these products require 48 hours to be absorbed before any water exposure. If decontamination was performed before this, additional protection may have been advised.

One handler reported an attached tick on their canine. Various preventative products work in different ways. Some products allow a tick to attach, but during feeding the drug is absorbed and the tick falls away dead before the transfer of a disease can be accomplished. Other products prevent any tick or flea from feeding, but they fall away still alive.

No products are being promoted in this report. Of interest only is that all the preventatives, heartworm and flea/tick products, were of a monthly dosing. No sprays or collars were listed.

Preventative programs are the responsibility of the handler. Recommendation to add heartworm preventative and flea & tick products to the FEMA K9 cache were requested, but ultimately not accepted. If such products are deemed necessary during a deployment, a request may be made through the IST to acquire them.

Medical Examinations

Most of the survey canines fell in the 4-8 year old range. As veterinarians we tend to look for an increase in problems at around age 7, when some practices promote senior screening exams and tests. Working canines are active and athletic. Annual exams are still very important, and may have been performed recently or due at the time of deployment. Pre-deployment medical examinations are promoted. This allows for recognition of a potential problem that may become serious during the rigors of a deployment, or allows for treatment early so a more serious problem does not develop. 65% of survey canines received a pre-deployment examination.

Pre-shift and post-shift exams were performed 52% and 70% respectively. Post shift exams are important to detect problems that may not be noticed during work. Pre-shift examinations may catch a problem in which clinical signs are delayed, and may be missed for more than 12 hours if not checked pre-shift.

The handler is by far the most common person performing the shift exams. This is a very good practice. Checking hydration status and the body (especially pads) for wounding was performed by all. Some did temperature, some did not. Body temperature has been shown as the most important factor in limiting performance during search in hot climate zones. It is also an early indication of the need for addressing the heat issue. There are digital rectal thermometers that measure temperature within 10 seconds, which would make the process quick and easy.

Medical Issues and Treatment

Dehydration and wounding were most commonly seen in the survey canines. All injuries and illnesses were treated and no serious problems occurred. One report of a canine that had a seizure was not substantiated in this survey.

There was no apparent difference in the rate of injuries or illness between the canines that deployed from the colder climes compared to those from warmer climes. The numbers here may be too small to make the comparison.

Endemic Hazards Education

The dissemination of information regarding endemic diseases and local hazards is part of FEMA US&R medical, safety, and hazmat daily briefings. The importance of the information is self-evident. Not only handlers, but all task force members should be informed (to the best of the gathered knowledge). This benefits individuals as well as the canines. If there is a lot of information, a paper copy should be made available.

Members of the US&R Veterinary Group put together the information about Haiti, and tried to get it to those in Haiti. Communications were difficult, but some information made it through.


100%…. YEAH! Not only the dust and debris, but human remains and hazardous materials are a concern. The additional effects of cooling down a warm canine are beneficial. Decontamination also promotes a second look at the canine, and injuries not apparent under the fur may manifest visually as well as a pain response (flinching) when touched during the decontamination procedure.

Subcutaneous Fluids

Some of the handlers, who drank their own water out of sight of locals, could not be seen giving such a precious commodity to their canines for many reasons – safety as well as sensitivity. Bladders and camel-backs worked better than the obvious water bottles.

One of the doctors described some concerns about giving water to the canines while the Haiti populace, looking on nearby, was without water for themselves. Instead, they gave subcutaneous fluids before the shift.

Currently there is no published scientific data regarding potential benefits and/or contraindications for giving a working canine subcutaneous fluids in an effort to prevent and/or delay the onset of dehydration and other heat-related conditions.


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