Medical Care Considerations

Many detection dogs spend their careers in the local communities in which they serve. However, specialized detection tasks such as search and rescue (S&R) may result in the need for travel across the United States and internationally. Preventive medicine should include addressing likely risks associated with the deployment environment. Search dogs that work in wilderness areas or respond to natural disasters will require some noncore vaccines, including leptospirosis and potentially Lyme disease.40,51 Some detection dogs are kenneled or gather in large groups for training and should be vaccinated for canine infectious respiratory disease syndrome. Regional endemic diseases (e.g., tickborne diseases, fungal disease, heartworm disease) in deployment areas should be anticipated, with preventives provided if available or post deployment monitoring conducted. All detection dogs with the potential to travel should be on routine flea-and-tick preventives and heartworm prophylaxis. Routine (annual) health monitoring (e.g., chemistry profile, complete blood count, urinalysis, fecal parasite evaluation, heartworm and rickettsial disease screening) is recommended. Annual thoracic radiographs were of low yield in detecting occult disease in dogs responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and are of limited monitoring value.52

Detection dogs are some of the most highly trained yet uncooperative patients presented at veterinary practices. Many detection dogs are highly energetic and arousable, which is desirable for a fearless dog working in noisy environments with unstable surfaces or multiple distractions. These dogs are “spring-loaded” and when in “workmode” are difficult to restrain or calm. They may be predisposed to compulsive behaviors.49 Handling to prevent these dogs from exceeding a threshold of excitement can be challenging. Several techniques can facilitate a smooth evaluation.11–13 The handler should be actively involved in the examination and procedures in which they can safely participate. The handler has a unique bond with the dog, and the dog may become anxious or exceed a behavioral threshold if the two are separated. Additionally, the handler may use trained commands that can facilitate an assessment.

Although examinations can be performed on the ground, some dogs are more cooperative on an elevated, nonslip surface. (Tip: Have a yoga mat to cover the exam table.) Use of a high-pitched voice may inadvertently initiate a “work-mode” for the detection dog. Instead, use quiet voices and slow, calm movements, and if approved by the handler, use treats. (Tip: Frozen peanut butter on the inside of a coffee cup is a great way to occupy the dog during an examination.) Detection dogs that are kenneled, rather than living with the handler, may have special environmental enrichment needs to prevent unwanted behaviors.

Nutrition should focus on appropriate body condition (4–5 out of 9).8,9 Because canine athletes are at risk for degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis,53–56 lean body condition will contribute to longevity and slow the progression of arthritis. Dietary omega-3 fatty acids should be considered for the anti-inflammatory effects,57 particularly for detection dogs with high-physical-impact jobs. Many detection dogs develop work- or stress-related diarrhea. Although a complete fecal evaluation (i.e., flotation and stained direct smear) for parasites (Giardia, Clostridium, and Campylobacter) is indicated, many dogs will respond favorably to the use of probiotics.58 In anticipation of a stressful event (e.g., deployment to a natural disaster), prophylactic pro- and prebiotics may be beneficial. Unlike metronidazole, which has been reported to decrease olfactory sensitivity,59 there is no known negative effect of probiotics on olfactory function. There is limited information on the direct impact of medications on canine olfactory function, and the translation of information available in human literature is unknown.60–62 Although dietary changes have traditionally been discouraged, benefits of microbiome diversity suggest that dogs should rotate between 2–3 balanced diets, each with fat, protein, and carbohydrate content appropriate for the intensity of the work environment.63

Detection dogs traverse a variety of environments and surfaces. In buildings, on vehicles, or in disaster settings, the dogs are frequently required to stand on their hind limbs.

Most dogs lack the appropriate fitness and core strength to support their lumbar spines in this position.10 Repetitive motion of the lumbosacral spine, inadequate stretching of the iliopsoas muscle, and coxofemoral laxity may result in back and hip pain that can be challenging to diagnose and treat. A fitness and conditioning program to enhance core strength and flexibility may help prevent injury and increase working lifespan.10 Musculoskeletal injuries can occur from sudden movements, sprains, strains, and overuse. Although pet dogs typically recover from relatively minor injuries, detection dogs should be treated as performance athletes.

After therapeutic pain control, detection dogs should follow a rehabilitation plan to prevent deconditioning from prolonged rest and to regain the strength and flexibility to safely return to work. Any intervention, treatment, or procedure should account for the potential impact on the dog’s overall performance and anticipated return to work. Minor cuts and scrapes are among the most common injuries in detection dogs.64–66

Some work environments preclude the use of foot protection, making foot injuries common and challenging. Nails, including dewclaws (important for traction and grip), should be kept trimmed to prevent injury. Detection dogs are at risk of heat injury. The working temperature of these dogs commonly exceeds 105°F,67,68 temperatures that are tolerated, but the dogs work on the brink of heat exhaustion. Heat stroke was one of the most common preventable causes of early retirement in military working dogs.69

Veterinarians should play a role in its prevention and be prepared for emergency treatment. Handlers should be educated on the physical signs of heat stress, including excessive panting, extended and flattened tongue, squinty eyes, laid back ears, retracted lip commissures exposing the molars,67 and prolonged skin tent over the cranium, 70 so that they can end activity and initiate cooling. Common heat-induced behavioral changes include shade-seeking and failure to return directly to the handler after a retrieve. Weight control, physical fitness, hydration, and acclimatization are important contributors to heat tolerance.

Detection dogs are at risk for toxin exposure. Of particular concern for drug detection dogs are fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Although dogs are 10–20 times less sensitive to the effects of opioids than people, inhalation of fentanyl or themore potent synthetic opioid carfentanil can lead to toxicity.71 Signs associated with exposure, ranging from panting, increased noise reactivity, salivation, and defecation to hypopnea, hypotension, collapse, and death, are dependent on the amount absorbed. With opioid toxicity, the dog can act as a fomite and potentially expose the handler, first responders, and veterinary personnel to hazardous levels of opioids.72

One of the most difficult tasks as a veterinarian is to deliver news of a terminal condition or a career-ending injury to a detection dog. A working dog and handler have a unique bond. The handler often spends more time with their canine partner than with any human. In addition, the dog may be responsible for saving someone else’s life, including the handler’s. The extensive amount of training further deepens the bond and communication between the handler and the dog. In the 9/11 response, first responders that deployed with a working dog had a lower incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms than noncanine first responders. However, if the dog died within 3 years of the 9/11 deployment, the handler’s risk of PTSD increased.73 It is important to appreciate this unique partnership between handler and dog as well as the necessity of the dog’s purpose in its work.


Healthcare Recommendations for Detection Dogs
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Healthcare Category Detection Dog
Preventive care
  • Consideration that dogs may travel outside the area
  • Additional vaccines beyond core may include respiratory complex, leptospirosis, Lyme disease, etc.
  • Intranasal vaccines or olfaction
  • May need frequently updated health certificates for travel
  • Health screenings may need to be expanded based upon unique risks (infectious disease or other exposures)
  • Annual wellness screening tests (e.g., biochemistries, fecal analysis)
  • Be aware of and prepared to address
    • High arousal
    • Predisposition to compulsive behaviors
    • Benefits of behavioral and environmental enrichment
  • Dietary flexibility should be encouraged by regularly interchanging 2–3 complete and balanced diets to support lean body condition and GI microbial diversity
  • Use of supplements as appropriate to the individual (joint, probiotics, skin)
  • Encourage compliance with AAHA position on raw diets
  • Detection dogs may have may require adjustment to protein and fat intake in order to maintain muscle condition and avoid weight gain
  • Delay desexing in both males and females until past closure of growth plates to decrease the risk of orthopedic issues later
  • Brucellosis if breeding
  • See heritable diseases
Common injuries
  • Heat-related
  • Bites/stings
  • Toxicities
  • Punctures/lacerations/trauma
  • Orthopedic and musculoskeletal injuries
  • Feet, pads, nails
Common diseases
  • Gastrointestinal: GDV/discuss prophylactic gastropexy
  • Environmental risk factors
  • Orthopedic: hip/elbow dysplasia, osteoarthritis, lumbosacral disease
  • Keep handler and canine together as a team
  • Avoid arousal
  • Do not over-restrain
  • Consider keeping them separate from other animals
Screening for heritable diseases
  • EIC
  • CNM
  • Elbow and hip dysplasia
  • Ophthalmic diseases: CERF exams (PRA, etc.)
Mental/emotional considerations
  • End-of-life or end-of-career decisions may be especially additional considerations/ accommodations
  • Financial limitations and responsibilities
  • Dog may be a proxy for handler stress (emotions roll down the leash)
First aid
  • Hemorrhage control
  • Airway obstruction
  • Toxicity, field decontamination (both oral and dermal decontamination)
  • Heat injury
  • Hydration
  • Opioid reversal
  • Allergic reactions
Triggers for retirement
  • Agencies and organizations may have specific requirements and/or recommendations
  • Medical
  • Performance/behavioral
Needs of handlers
  • Include handlers in treatment decisions
  • Full treatment plans with detailed return to work strategies/requirements
  • Evaluate need for and implement return to work fitness program
Needs of owners
  • Agencies or organizations may need to be involved in treatment decisions
Needs of organizations
  • Agencies or organizations may need to be involved in treatment decisions
Possible exposure risk
  • Illicit drugs

These guidelines are supported by generous educational grants from the AAHA Foundation,
Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA Inc., CareCredit, Merck Animal Health, and Zoetis.