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CDC Learns from Katrina: Disaster Plans Now Include Pets

“Many New Orleans natives I met working at the pet shelters had lost their homes, jobs, cars, worldly possessions, and did not know where all their family were. When I asked them if taking care of the pets was important to their sense of resiliency and positive mental health, the answer was always a resounding ‘yes!’”

—Stephanie R. Ostrowski, DVM, MPVM, Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine, (CAPT, USPHS), deployed to Baton Rouge in early October 2005 as part of the USPHS veterinary team to provide post-hurricane support to the State Veterinarian

Photo of cat rescued after Hurricane Katrina
Cat rescued after Hurricane Katrina

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Katrina relief efforts embraced another critical element of disaster response: animal care and emergency veterinary services.  According to studies by the American Veterinary Medical Association and other national humane organizations, between 60-70% of American households have pets, and the majority of these consider them to be family members, feeling the same sense of responsibility for their safety as they do for any other family member.  In fact, today, as more children share their home with a pet than with a sibling or a father and many single adults live relatively isolated from families and other social support networks, pets may be an individual’s only daily household companions and a primary focus of their social interactions. (This is particularly true for senior citizens following the death of a spouse.)  For many, a pet fills an important role as a primary companion and source of attention, affirmation, and security; therefore, pet-owning households are significantly less likely to evacuate in disasters if a shelter location is not provided that can also accommodate their pet(s) nearby. 

“It is simply not acceptable to the majority of Americans to leave behind pets and companion animals,” says Dr. Stephanie R. Ostrowski, DVM, MPVM, Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine, (CAPT, USPHS). “Witnessing the abandonment of any household member to his fate is profoundly distressing and increases anxiety about an individual’s own safety and security. Consequently, CDC’s role in these efforts was, at its core, an important and wide-ranging public health mission.”

CDC public health veterinarians (as well as NIOSH industrial hygienists passing through) recognized that there were additional broad public health concerns related to involuntary pet-owner separation and animal loss (e.g., mental health/ resilience issues for both victims and responders) and animal rescue activities (HAZMAT exposure, physical hazards, severe heat stress, inappropriate work-rest cycles, and literally deafening noise levels from continuously barking dogs housed in metal buildings).  But most important was the recognition that a lack of plans and resources to evacuate "incidental" pets with their owners has been known for decades to be a primary reason why citizens will refuse to evacuate in the face of imminent life-threatening danger.  Firefighters have recognized for decades that facilitating joint pet-owner evacuation—when it does not create additional risk—can be a life-saving intervention.

The U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) veterinary team had three primary roles from the outset of the natural disaster:

CDC staff were also assigned to the Veterinary Team that was part of the Emergency Support Function (ESF) of the Secretary's Emergency Response Team (SERT).  ESF state and local authorities included the Office of the State Veterinarian, the State Animal Response Team (SART), and local animal control officials in impacted Parishes who have regulatory authority over and physical custody of all stray and abandoned animals in their jurisdictions.  In addition to these official partners, there were many private animal rescue groups with which Dr. Ostrowski and her team performed National Incident Management System (NIMS) outreach activities.  Many of the smaller animal rescue groups were composed of and led by self-deployed volunteers with little to no prior awareness of the NIMS structure and the legal jurisdiction of state and local authorities. 

Chief among the team’s tasks were providing the Joint Field Office with ESF staffing support and surge-capacity staff to assist the State Veterinarian’s Office with the work to be dome. In the first two weeks, this included working to rapidly assess the most urgent needs of abandoned animals in evacuated areas. CDC staff were also among those veterinary officers on the USPHS team deployed to the primary rescue shelter at the Lamar-Dixon Livestock Arena at Gonzales, Louisiana, and to the evacuation animal shelter at Louisiana State University’s Parker Coliseum in Baton Rouge. The USPHS team was responsible for overseeing the operation of the cat and dog portion of the rescue shelter as well as for providing veterinary support to "export" activities when unclaimed dogs and cats were shipped out-of-state to a network of pet shelters and foster homes.    

Toward the end of the response, in assisting the State Veterinarian's Office with "exit strategies" of a handful of remaining animal rescue groups that needed to close out their operations, several members of the ESF Veterinary Team provided essential veterinary clinical services (rabies vaccinations, neutering, and minor surgical procedures) needed prior to re-locating and releasing nearly 100 feral cats that had been trapped by Alley Cat Allies, a national organization dedicated to feral cats.  Many cats in the affected areas, even household pets, had reverted to a semi-feral state after months of fending for themselves, and so traps were being set to help capture them. 

Thanks to lessons learned during the hurricanes, animals are now included in several  states' emergency preparedness and response plans, and there is a new Federal law—the Pet Evacuation Transportation Standards (PETS) Act of 2006, which was signed into law by President Bush in October.  It requires that state and local governments include household pets in emergency evacuation plans and authorizes the use of funds to "procure, construct, or renovate emergency shelter facilities and materials that will temporarily accommodate people with pets and service animals" and to provide "rescue, care, shelter, and essential such pets and animals."    

The many stakeholders brought together during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita also agreed on the need to:

In recognition for her work in Louisiana, Dr. Ostrowski received the U.S. Coast Guard’s Meritorious Service Medal, which states that “the President of the United States has awarded the Meritorious Service Medal to Captain Stephanie Ostrowski for exceptionally meritorious achievement and superior performance of duties from 15 October to 15 November 2005."

Page last modified: 11/4/2006