JUL 23, 2017 5:06 PM PDT

Search & Rescue Dogs Work Through the Stress of Travel

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Man’s best friend even comes through for us in times of crisis. Search and rescue dogs are an essential part of many different types of emergency and security operations, and we want those pups performing and feeling their best. New research investigating the health of these dogs has found that often, the journey to the site where their services are needed can cause them stress. The work, reported in the Journal of Nutritional Science, has evaluated how air travel impacts the physiology and function of the dogs.

Search and rescue dogs experience stress when flying, but quickly overcome it to do their job. / Credit: Erin Perry

"We've spent $16 billion in this country trying to come up with a machine that can sniff better than dogs, and we haven't done it yet. Search and rescue animals can save lives, protect our soldiers in the field, and locate survivors after a disaster. We want to know how we can manage them so we can protect their performance because their performance impacts human lives. That's the reason behind what we do," explained Erin Perry, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Animal Science, Food and Nutrition at Southern Illinois University.

Perry has been a canine handler with the Department of Homeland Security for 14 years. Perry collaborated with animal scientist Kelly Swanson and others at the University of Illinois for this study. The team assayed the performance and microbiome of two groups of dogs. One cohort of search and rescue dogs had taken two and a half hours to fly to their job site in the cabin of a commercial plane. Another group of dogs in the research project was loaded onto a helicopter while the blades spun, and flew for 30 minutes to the job.  

"Some dogs are like, 'I've flown before, no big deal,' but others, even if they've flown before, still show stress behaviors, and can have elevated body temperature or diarrhea," said Swanson, Kraft Foods Human Nutrition Endowed Professor in the Department of Animal Sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences at U of I.

If you have a dog, you probably are aware that a stressed out pup often has loose stools. Microbes that reside in the gastrointestinal tract aiding digestion, the microbiome, could shift in response to stress (as illustrated in the video above). The lining of the gut may then lose integrity, and when it becomes more permeable, deleterious microbes get the upper hand and wreak havoc on the stomach. While these symptoms are often seen in search and rescue dogs during travel, the microbiome has not been investigated until now.

A helicopter flight induced the release of cortisol, a stress hormone, and a spike in body temperature. The microbiome remained unperturbed, however. When dogs had to deal with a plane, including traversing security at an airport and being on a flight for a longer time, there was a change in the microbiome.

"Microbial beta diversity, which is a measure of the presence and abundance of bacterial taxa, was different between dogs that traveled compared to those that did not. Travel led to greater relative abundances of Clostridia and Bacteroidaceae populations, two of the more predominant microbial groups in the gastrointestinal tract," Swanson reported. Additional work will be needed to determine the long term health impacts of these shifts, he said.

Interestingly, the air travel had no effect on how well they performed on the job. "They showed behavioral stress, their gut was completely turned upside down, their blood work showed significant effects, and it didn't matter. They still went to work and performed beautifully," Perry said. "Even though we see physiological impacts on these dogs, they're such amazing athletes that they overcome the physical and environmental stress and just do their job."

The researchers emphasized that even though they are usually unperturbed, stress can sometimes make search and rescue dogs miss work. This kind of research could help develop therapeutics to alleviate these effects, for working dogs (showcased in the video above) as well as companion animals.

"We've all owned dogs that were scared of lightning, vacuum cleaners, those innocuous day-to-day experiences," said Perry. "Having a better understanding of what causes stress and how to compensate for it helps every dog, not just the ones that are out there saving lives."

"These small studies are just a starting point. In the future, we hope to apply these findings to larger studies focused on various stressor types and a longer duration of stress, similar to that experienced in the field during times of emergency. Our goals will be to develop and evaluate nutritional interventions and/or management strategies that avoid negative physiologic effects and maintain performance,” concluded Swanson.



Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! Via ACES Illinois, Journal of Nutritional Science 

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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