Japanese companion animals still suffer from nuclear fallout

Companion animals in Japan are continuing to suffer after the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident.

A PBS news team filming in Japan reported last week that they came across many dogs and cats roaming the streets, malnourished and looking for food among the rubble and devastation.

This devastation comes as a result of the tsunami that damaged the Fukushima nuclear power facility, causing equipment failures and releasing radioactive materials.

According to the report by the PBS production crew, there were signs of companion animals everywhere. Bowls of dog food were left alongside makeshift police stations, and lampposts featured signs with mug shots of dogs that had been rescued from the area. From a dog emerging from a cluster of houses near a stream to a cat poking its head out from behind the corner of an abandoned house, the team reported signs of abandoned animals all over the city.

However, these were not simply stray animals. The team reported that they were clearly companion animals, left behind in the evacuation rush when the earthquake hit Japan.

"These were not feral cats and dogs," one production member wrote on the PBS NewsHour blog. "It’s obvious they were part of someone’s family. As you feel empathy for these abandoned creatures, you start to feel the scope of the disruption and abandonment and complete destruction of the social fabric in Japan. The Japanese are very, very sweet to their pets."

The blog references the Japanese love of animals, including the Japanese "cat cafes", places where people pay by the hour to relax and hang out with resident cats.

Many local Japanese groups have been eager to help with animal rescue efforts, but progress has been slow.

The animal rescue efforts in Japan following the earthquake have slowed due to confusion over whether the animals are safe to handle. A May report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare emphasized that human safety should come first, and that any rescue of animals had to be carried out by teams fully equipped with personal protective equipment, real-time dosimeters and survey meters.

A committee of experts wrote in the report that re-location of companion animals from a restricted area included rescue, decontamination, transport and sheltering, and outlined approaches to best achieve each of those components. As long as animals were appropriately cleaned and quarantined, they should be deemed safe for handling.

However, rescue is still slow, and experts say that it could take 4 to 5 months for animals to eventually eliminate the radioactive material from their bodies. It is still possible for humans to be exposed to radiation during rescue, and the uncertainty about the risk of radiation and its effects on both animals and people is a dangerous factor.

In the report, the committee writes that their recommendations are just beginning steps of long term commitments to meeting animal needs resulting from a nuclear accident.

"This type of information will be invaluable for dealing with this specific disaster and for assisting communities across the world as they plan for similar incidents," the report said.