Archive for May 2013

Veterinary Emergency Teams – Responding When Disaster Strikes!

Whether it’s rising floodwaters, raging wildfires or even acts of terrorism, catastrophic events require all kinds of professionals to respond.  Even though most people know about police and firefighters, veterinarians are also often called to disaster scenes to help save lives and reunite families.

As we have all seen, tragic events like hurricanes, earthquakes or bombings take their toll on human lives.  But, it’s not unusual to see animal victims of these disasters as well.   Animals can be injured or lost and in the case of large scale calamities, local animal control resources are quickly overwhelmed.

Although our first thoughts often go to our companion animals, like dogs and cats, large animals, from horses to sheep and pigs to cattle are also at risk.  In fact, horses will often panic and run in the face of danger while cattle will quickly scatter through downed fence lines.

What can local agencies do when animals are in need of help in addition to the local population of people?

Veterinary Emergency Teams (VET) are often called upon by local first responders when a disaster situation gets beyond their control.  These well-equipped and well trained groups of volunteer veterinary professionals will bring in vital supplies, needed medications and even state of the art mobile facilities designed to provide a safe work environment as well resting quarters for the crew.

It’s obvious that these teams can function to help injured animals, but they actually can provide invaluable aid to local veterinarians who have suffered damage to their hospitals.  In addition, these specialized emergency response units can also help triage animal cases, provide additional assistance to local animal control agencies by searching for microchips among lost pets and care for the many search and rescue or working dogs that aid in disaster relief.

Veterinary emergency teams also provide vital public health monitoring in the aftermath of catastrophes, give technical assistance to assure food and water safety and help prevent zoonotic and other disease outbreaks.

Although a National Veterinary Response Team (NVRT) has been established and operates within the National Disaster Medical System, many states will also field their own veterinary medical assistance teams.  Colleges, such as Texas A&M, the University of California at Davis and others have also developed volunteer groups that have responded to a multitude of local emergency situations.

With the passage of the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Safety Act  (“PETS Act”) in 2006, a greater emphasis has been placed on the care of our pets and animals in the event of large scale disasters.  States must include animals in sheltering and evacuation plans and also provide means of tracking those animals throughout the event.  Veterinary emergency teams are crucial to insuring that these standards are met.

Veterinarians, veterinary technicians, animal control officials, pharmacists and many others, including concerned citizens who aren’t in the animal health field, are eligible to volunteer for veterinary teams.  Interested individuals should become familiar with the National Incident Command Structure as working in disaster zones requires a strict adherence to details and an organized system of communications.  This means that even though you might have a strong passion for helping our four legged friends, you can’t just run into a danger zone and start trying to save pets.  That type of action will not only endanger yourself, but also pull resources from where they may be needed if you get in trouble.

So, when disaster strikes, don’t be surprised to see volunteer veterinarians and technicians working with police and firefighters, saving lives and getting life back to normal and animals and families back together!

Develop a disaster preparedness plan for your pet at


Search and Rescue Dogs – Canine Heroes!

Throughout history, dogs have helped humans in many ways, but it’s only been in the last 350 years or so that our canine friends have assisted in the rescue of lost people.  The most famous example is, of course, the work of hundreds of St. Bernards who are credited with saving more than 2,000 people from frigid deaths high in the Swiss Alps.  Like their historical counterparts, modern day Search and Rescue dogs rely on extensive training, an unshakeable bond with their trainer and, of course, their incredible sense of smell!

We all know that our dogs are great at sniffing out things, especially when food is involved.  Dogs actually have a sense of smell that is about 40 times more sensitive than a human’s and its olfactory prowess that helps make a great search and rescue dog.  Experts still don’t know exactly how dogs can locate an injured person or missing child, but current theories indicate that the dogs are using the dead skin cells that constantly fall off us.  These “skin cell rafts” contain conspicuous human scents that the dogs use during their search.

While all breeds possess a keen sense of smell, good search and rescue canines will be a medium to large breed (or mixed breed) animal in good physical health, above average intelligence and also possess good listening skills.  But, perhaps the most important attribute for a good search dog candidate is his desire to play!

Allowing an opportunity for the successful dog to play is the animal’s “reward” for properly performing their duties.  This behavior is ingrained early as training starts with puppies as young as 8-10 weeks of age and is continually reinforced throughout the dog’s career.  The search dog in training is taught to find a special toy with a desired scent and this skill is then expanded so that the dogs learn to find people in all sorts of environments and situations.

Search and rescue dogs are even trained differently, depending on how they will be used.  “Air-scent” dogs work with their nose up in the air, following a scent trail and working towards the highest concentration.  This is especially useful when trying to find victims buried in an avalanche, people trapped under buildings in an urban setting or even human remains.

Contrast this with the typical tracking dogs often seen in movies chasing down escaped criminals.  Bloodhounds and other breeds work with their nose on the ground, following a scent trail from a known starting point.  Many of these dogs also help find children that have wandered away from home and into fields, forests or deserts.  They have even found Alzheimer patients who have strayed from their safe home.

When their services are needed, local law enforcement often calls upon volunteer search and rescue organizations which they have trained with and trust.  These private groups are not components of any branch of government, but are called and deployed to help first responders in a variety of situations.  Although search and rescue dogs have been used throughout the 20th century, the teams have received more national recognition due to their work after 9-11, during the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan and in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike.

Both handlers and dogs must meet stringent training requirements that are set forth by their organization in addition to specific standards outlined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  Groups like the American Rescue Dog Association and Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States (SARDUS) have detailed websites about the training their specific groups offer to potential candidates.

So, the next time that your local news shows scenes of devastation or natural disaster, remember that our canine friends, and their human partners, are also on the front lines, saving lives and bringing hope to victims of catastrophes.