Care to Pets, Hope for Residents in Wake of Hurricane Ian


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UF VETS team brings relief to over 400 pets in the wake of Hurricane Ian.


When all is lost in the aftermath of a natural disaster – including one’s home, belongings, and security – sick or injured pets can be the tipping point between hope and despair. From treatable allergies to severe injuries or starvation, animals that survive a calamity face similar risks as people, and a lack of available care or resources can force families to watch their pets suffer unnecessarily.

“As a rule, pet owners should always plan ahead with extra medication, food, water, bedding, and medical records, and be ready to go at a moment’s notice, especially during hurricane season,” said Dr. Lawrence Garcia, medical director, University of Florida Vet Emergency Treatment Service, or UF-VETS. “In addition, they should know where pet-friendly shelters and hotels are located on their potential evacuation routes, as well as have a family plan.” But when infrastructure is destroyed, and local veterinary clinics are without power, even the best-laid preparations can fall short, he acknowledges.

When the University of Florida VETS team traveled to Fort Meyers, Florida, on Oct. 3, 2022, its goal was to establish a self-sustaining field hospital for pets impacted by Hurricane Ian. Over the next 10 days, the team provided free emergency medical care to over 400 patients, bringing relief to animals and residents alike. “Our team focuses on providing support in areas where veterinary infrastructure has been heavily impacted,” said Dr. Garcia. They offer care for residents’ pets at no cost until the infrastructure is back up. “We must be adaptable and expandable and work closely with the Florida Veterinary Medical Association and the State Agricultural Response Team, as these partnerships allow us to provide care to those most in need.”

The team, which included five veterinarians, seven veterinary technicians, three veterinary students, and six support personnel, remained in Fort Meyers for 10 days. In addition, the Florida Veterinary Technicians Association provided 16 volunteer veterinarians and 20 volunteer veterinary technicians. Team members stayed at a bunk trailer financed through a grant from PetSmart Charities and the Banfield Foundation. Dr. Garcia stayed for two weeks while the other doctors rotated out to fulfill their responsibilities on the university campus.

The team functions as a partner of the Florida State Agricultural Response Team (SART), Dr. Garcia explains. “As a quick-strike resource, the college has been tasked to assist the state in response to animal and agricultural disasters whenever a state of emergency has been declared by the state or federal government. Our most common deployments occur during hurricane season, although we complete annual exercises.

“We travel to impacted areas with a cache of supplies and pharmaceuticals, which we purchase from our teaching hospital,” he continued. “This cache is geared to last between five to seven days. While on deployment, local veterinarians, pharmaceutical companies, and others donate supplies and medications. We also have team members ship or transport supplies and pharmaceuticals to us from the college when necessary.”

In Fort Meyers, the team established a field hospital, which included a mobile surgical unit designed to serve as a mobile hospital; an air-conditioned cargo trailer that served as an exam space; and an air-conditioned tent, which provided additional exam and treatment space. The mobile surgical unit is shared with the Veterinary Community Outreach Program, which is located at the veterinary college and which uses the unit quite often, said Dr. Garcia. “Out of necessity, the team provided care in whatever spaces were available at the time, including the parking lot when necessary, as long as it was safe to do so.”

Many of the animals seen during the team’s 10-day stay had gastrointestinal or dermatological issues related to or exacerbated by, the stress associated with the storm and its after-effects, he says. “Some trauma patients were also seen, such as a dog we treated for alligator bite wounds.”

University of Florida team that works with pets impacted by disasters like Hurricane Ian.
The team has assisted in hurricanes, hoarding cases, disease outbreaks, oil spills, and technical rescues.

Disaster response since 2004

The UF VETS team was founded during the 2004 hurricane season following several ad hoc missions assigned to the veterinary college by the Florida State Agricultural Response Team, according to Dr. Garcia. “UF VETS is comprised of volunteer veterinarians, staff, and veterinary students who can provide disaster response, animal technical rescue, and animal technical rescue training,” he said. “The team has assisted in hurricanes, hoarding cases, disease outbreaks, oil spills, and technical rescues involving a variety of species and emergencies.”

“Several of our team members train in technical rescue disciplines, including rope rescue, confined space rescue, and flood and/or swift-water rescue,” added Brandi Phillips, animal technical rescue branch director, UF VETS. The team applies principles from various technical rescue disciplines to animal technical rescue emergencies. “We provide animal technical rescue training to veterinarians, urban search and rescue, technical rescue teams, fire rescue, and law enforcement throughout the state of Florida. Our team was not tasked with missions of this nature in Fort Meyers, although we had three trained members deployed to Fort Meyers and brought some of our specialized animal technical rescue equipment to ensure that we would have the capability to support these missions if they arose.”

“Awareness of the need to protect and keep animals with their families has been increasing since Hurricane Katrina,” said Dr. Garcia. “It has been noted in some cases that families will not evacuate if they cannot take their pets with them. Thanks to the PETS Act, counties – especially in Florida – have recently begun setting up pet-friendly shelters to provide these families with a safe place to go with their pets. Leading up to – and following – Hurricane Ian, at times, there were over 40 pet-friendly shelters open throughout the state.”

(Signed into law in 2006, approximately one year after Hurricane Katrina, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006 – PETS Act – authorizes FEMA to provide rescue, care, shelter, and essential needs for individuals with household pets and service animals, and to the household pets and animals themselves following a major disaster or emergency.)

“In addition, the National Fire Protection Association has adopted standards for animal technical rescue, and FEMA requires animal technical rescue training for agencies aiming to serve as Type II response teams,” said Phillips. “During Hurricane Ian, USAR teams provided technical rescue of animals trapped in flooded areas and helped transport pets stranded on islands by helicopter or boat.”

Pet owners today definitely do more to protect their pets, said Dr. Garcia. “Whether they experience the impact of a hurricane or they’ve become aware through public education and resources provided by veterinarians, country and state websites, and animal welfare organizations, they are doing a better job,” he said.