COL Insuring canine heroes

By Dr. Marty Becker

Knight Ridder News Service

Service dogs have long been a part of search and rescue operations in the United States. For more than a decade, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has depended on these dogs for their keen sense of smell to find survivors and victim remains after earthquakes, hurricanes, explosions and bombings.

But the search and rescue efforts after Sept. 11 at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Pennsylvania plane crash sites were like no other. Conditions already treacherous for human workers were exacerbated for canine recruits who performed daily without masks, boots or other protective equipment. For many dogs, their very job was to use their noses in areas contaminated by asbestos, PCBs, CFCs and other toxic chemicals.

While the world watched the cleanup efforts unfold, these canine heroes also were in the spotlight. Their eagerness to help and determination to serve despite perilous work conditions did not go unnoticed by the media or the pet-loving public. Soon after Sept. 11, U.S. companies and organizations began rallying to support these brave animals.


The VPI Skeeter Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the research and development of the human-animal bond, is purchasing pet insurance policies from Veterinary Pet Insurance -- the nation's leading pet insurance provider -- for the 300 search-and-rescue canine workers who helped in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.

"This effort is intended as an expression of pride and appreciation for the dedication and tireless efforts of the canine heroes," said Dr. Jack Stephens, chief executive officer of VPI. "But we've been able to locate only half the owners of the estimated 300 search-and-rescue dogs. We're still hoping the others will step forward to accept an insurance policy."

VPI is actively seeking out the rescue dogs and their guardians to ensure all the hero dogs receive the best veterinary care possible. Beyond the immediate dehydration, smoke inhalation, cuts and bruises that most dogs experienced, some have since been plagued by health problems, including nerve damage and arthritis. Some dogs even had health problems before that tragic day, and in keeping with its mission, the Skeeter Foundation has stepped up to help pay for these medical bills, too.

"We recently discovered that many of these dogs have unmet needs related to Sept. 11 medical problems that predate our offer of insurance," said Stephens. "Our goodwill offer was intended to provide coverage for future medical events. However, now that we know there is some need predating our insurance offer, we are committed to providing financial aid where it's needed. Now that we understand additional needs may exist, we pledge that the VPI Skeeter Foundation will help all Sept. 11 service dogs in need of financial assistance to solve their health concerns."

Another unique effort designed to help these special dogs is being conducted through the American Kennel Club's Canine Health Foundation. Their concern for these dogs prompted a three-year study into the long-term health risks to dogs and ramifications from serving in such an environment. Pet-friendly companies are supporting the efforts of the AKC Canine Health Foundation by providing financial support for the study.

For most of these dogs, their jobs aren't done. It's great to hear that companies are so willing to give their resources to help ensure these courageous dogs remain healthy, especially for future rescue efforts.

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