Since 1994, the United States has spent one billion dollars annually on protection and detection gear against biological and chemical attacks.
However, one of the most trusted detection devices on the frontline may soon be protecting Americans at home as well.
In the battlefield, most soldiers may dread the sound of sirens, because they warn a chemical or biological attack may be near. But alarms are not the only device the military uses to alert its troops of a possible assault.
Animals are often the first line of defense on the frontline, and their mission may soon extend beyond the battlefield.
Early Show resident veterinarian Debbye Turner explains that pets may be our best defense against a possible biological or chemical attack.
They may also be on the first alerts many Americans get, according to epidemiologist and professor Dr. Larry Glickman.
"They lick, they smell and so they're very likely to come into contact with bacterial or viral agents in the environment or chemicals on surfaces," says Dr. Glickman. "Because of their small size, they're also much more likely to show signs quickly."
Dr. Glickman and his colleagues at Purdue University are collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create the Veterinary Medical Data Surveillance of Signs, the first database of its kind in the country.
"Since 9/11, we're really concerned about whether the public will be exposed to bacterial, viral, chemical or physical agents like radiation," says Dr. Glickman. "We need a way to detect those exposures as quickly as possible."
The doctor thinks he has found it. Dr. Glickman says out of six agents considered to present the most risk for people, four can also cause disease in dogs and cats.
All the information of the animal database comes from one central source.
"We've partnered with the largest veterinary hospital chain in the United States," explains Dr. Glickman. "The data from all of these clinics comes from about 70,000 dogs and cats seen weekly. And that data is then made available to epidemiologists, where we can mine that data to look for clusters of disease that would be unusual in dogs and cats that might suggest infection or exposure to one of those threat agents."
He says detecting hot spots early is the key to making the warning system work.
Using animals to test for deadly agents isn't new. Canaries were used in coal mines to detect unsafe gases that might harm miners. In 1995, police were using them in Tokyo to find nerve gas agents after a sarin gas attack. And last year, a disturbing video tape surfaced that showed suspected Al-Qaeda operatives testing chemical agents on a dog.
"Hopefully we never know how our system works because you never have an act of bio-terrorism," says Dr. Glickman. "But in the meantime, we do have to test the system. And so we will test the system against naturally occurring environmental problems."
Dr. Glickman reassures animal lovers that the system doesn't practice any experimentation on animals.
"Anything we do is for the good of the animals, for the good of the pet owner and ultimately for the good of public health," says Dr. Glickman. "Pets do so much for us, and this is just another example of what they do. And I think this is a classic example of the animal-human bond at its best."