Veterinary technicians played key role in first pet-friendly hurricane evacuation

Hurricane Gustav’s arrival in the United States on Sept. 1 marked an important milestone in companion animal history. For the first time, pets and service animals were allowed to evacuate hurricane-threatened areas with their owners. And at least one group of veterinary technicians was an integral part of it.

The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2006, requires pets to be included in disaster evacuation plans. The law requires state and local authorities to include household pets and service animals in their emergency preparedness operational plans. These plans must be in place for states to qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding. The law was enacted in response to hurricane Katrina, in which many pet owners refused to evacuate without their pets and died as a result.

Prior to Gustav’s making landfall, nearly two million residents fled New Orleans and Louisiana’s coastal areas, including 18,000 people who were transported to shelters by bus or train. One shelter was in Oklahoma City, and a volunteer team from Oklahoma State University – Oklahoma City’s Veterinary Technology Program was directly involved in the historic event. OSU instructor Dana Call, RVT, VTS (ECC), was the leader of a team of technicians and students that were sent to the shelter to attend to the non-human evacuees. She received a call from Scott Mason, DVM, coordinator of the Oklahoma State Animal Response Team, putting her on alert that the evacuees were arriving Sept. 1. Call said about 1,800 people arrived at the Oklahoma shelter on Labor Day, along with about 30 cats and dogs, a cockatiel, a fish and two gerbils.

“We were ready to go in a pretty short period of time,” Call said. “Once we determined what all we were going to be doing, everything went really smoothly.”

She said an air-conditioned trailer was set up for the cats, and the dogs were housed in cages under a tent away from the human shelter. Call and her team spent more than three hours checking the animals for parasites and other health issues. They also vaccinated the animals since there was no time to check each animal’s vaccination records. She said in general the pets were healthy and in good shape.  

“They didn’t have any major medical problems at all,” she said. “It could have been a very stressful situation for them but they seemed to handle it well.”

Call said all the animals at the Oklahoma City site were small animals, and larger breeds were sent to a different location in Shreveport, La.

Jackie McShane Meeks, RVT, works in the Veterinary Technology Program at OSU and was on the response team with Call. She said the pet shelter was well-run and in general seemed less chaotic than the human side of things.

“The cats were a lot calmer than I expected,” Meeks said.

She said that before and after the team responded, she thought about the historic nature of the evacuation, but when she was on the scene, it was just business as usual.

“We were just doing our job, and getting the job done. That was a pretty big deal,” she said.

The team worked with FEMA, as well as with Oklahoma City animal welfare personnel and a local ambulance service, which offered to help with medication for pets if they had any allergic reactions. Call said for her part, she was glad to be involved.

“It was great to be a part of,” she said. “I was telling my students: ‘You’re making history here. It’s never happened before.’”

Call recalled the chaos of the 1999 Oklahoma tornado outbreak, before there was legislation in place to account for people’s pets.

“In the past, animals that were left in an area that people were evacuated from were picked up by animal control and taken to shelters,” she said. “In 1999 the shelters were completely inundated. That was a big eye-opening experience.”

Although everything went smoothly with the Gustav evacuees, Call said better pet identification should be a part of future disaster readiness plans.

“I think that at some point it would be wise to microchip all the animals,” she said. “Permanent IDs definitely should be part of the protocol, and I think there are a lot of people who agree with that.”