Researcher Profile: Dr. Cindy Otto


Dr. Cindy Otto, DVM, PhD, DACVECC, DACVSMR, CCRT, has a long and diverse career studying the health of search and rescue dogs. Search and rescue dogs are highly and specifically trained canines that perform unique and critical tasks to benefit humans and society. Historically, these dogs have served as messenger dogs during war time; as helpmates to farmers in the fields; as a helping hand to people with disabilities; as detection dogs; and as patrol dogs protecting the ports and entryways to our nation. Detection dogs, sometimes called “sniffer dogs,” are those that use their sense of smell to identify particular odors (such as explosives, drugs, or lost people).  In addition, new research is illustrating a dog’s ability to identify infectious diseases (such as Salmonella) and even cancer.

Dr. Otto became interested in this line of research as a resident in internal medicine and PhD in veterinary physiology at the University of Georgia.  It was here that she first learned about the Urban Search and Rescue dogs and realized that there wasn't a structure of veterinary support for them. “When I moved to Penn, I tracked down the state team, which was just getting started and joined them under various guises, since there wasn't a veterinary position on the team,” said Otto.

While working with them between 1994 and 2010 she was deployed to assist in the rescue and recovery efforts of Hurricane Floyd and the September 11 terrorist attacks in Manhattan. “Since my experience with those dogs was so powerful, and the importance of their care so clear, I also joined the Veterinary Medical Assistance Team to be sure I had a mechanism to provide support during disasters,” said Otto.

Dr. Otto has been monitoring the health and behavior of Urban Search and Rescue canines since October of 2001 through a CHF-funded grant. During this time, thanks to CHF support, she has monitored canine teams who responded to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC. During the deployments in New York, both at Ground Zero and at the Staten Island Landfill, and in Washington DC at the Pentagon, the health and well-being of the dogs was monitored.

Remarkably, the dogs coped with the adverse conditions with minimal morbidity. The most common handler reported problems were cuts and scrapes, most being minor. Problems related to the intensive work included fatigue, weight loss, and dehydration. Interestingly enough, respiratory problems were rare. While the human responders have been plagued with chronic respiratory conditions, their canine companions, based on the ongoing monitoring supported through the CHF grant, have shown minimal respiratory problems. In fact, there have been no systematic conditions that have been identified in deployed search and rescue dogs that did not also occur in control (non-deployed) search and rescue dogs.

“The dogs’ respiratory system was able to cope with this horrible insult of the air quality, toxins, and pollutants that they were exposed to with no respiratory protection from the work that they did,” said Otto. “All of our evidence points to the fact that these dogs were incredibly resilient.”

Because dogs and humans suffer from many of the same diseases, dogs have been seen as an ideal natural research specimen. “We see a problem in the dog that helps us understand a problem in the human, but now we’re going to reverse that,” said Otto. “The humans had a problem but the dogs didn’t – what’s different?  That might open up some opportunities for really important investigations in respiratory physiology.”

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