Disaster training, response coordinated in California

Numerous state, county, and community agencies are commonly involved in animal rescue and care during and after natural disasters

UC Davis Veterinary Hospital team members treat a pig injured in the 2018 Camp Fire. Photos courtesy UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine
UC Davis Veterinary Hospital team members treat a pig injured in the 2018 Camp Fire.
Photos courtesy UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine

California, like many other Western and Midwest states, has been ravaged in recent years by devastating wildfires and other natural disasters. Such cataclysmic events often take a heavy toll on regional wildlife and household pets, as well as the veterinarians and others charged with their care.

Numerous state, county, and community agencies and organizations are commonly involved in animal rescue and care during and after natural disasters. Unfortunately, California’s 58 counties are not all equal when it comes to necessary resources, preparedness, and more.

To help close these gaps, the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) School of Veterinary Medicine has been tasked with administering a new state-funded effort, called the California Veterinary Emergency Team (CVET). The program will coordinate a unified effort to help animals during disasters by recruiting and training volunteers and veterinarians on best practices in shelter and emergency medicine.

CVET will partner with a wide variety of stakeholders to improve disaster preparedness and response statewide, as well as the care and housing of rescued animals. Partners include the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), and many of the Golden State’s larger independent animal response organizations.


The initiative began about three years ago when the school was approached by state Senator Steve Glazer, who was interested in helping.

“His staff asked, ‘how can the state help? What efforts would be most effective?’” says Michael D. Lairmore, DVM, PhD, distinguished professor and immediate past dean, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “We began to talk and saw gaps, which included a consistent response across all counties within California. We found different regions had different capacities. Some were very well organized, with animal shelters and training. Others lacked an adequate response, coordination, and training. Some of that was economic.”

Glazer introduced legislation to provide $3 million annually to CVET, a program modeled after the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN), administered by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and directed by Michael Ziccardi, DVM, MPVM, PhD, Hon. ACZM. Established in 1994, OWCN has responded to more than 75 oil spills that placed wildlife in crisis, and has cared for more than 10,000 wildlife, which were cleaned and released back into a clean environment. It has partnered with over 40 organizations, Dr. Ziccardi says, and has trained more than 1,600 people to respond immediately to oil-spill disasters.

At its core, the purpose of CVET is to coordinate and help train and prepare communities for animal disasters, Dr. Lairmore says. This includes before a disaster strikes, as well as during a disaster itself.

“It could be that a particular county is very well established and doesn’t need any help,” Lairmore explains, “but when they do call us, we want to know in advance about any involved volunteer groups, how well they are trained, and who the key contacts are so we can respond immediately with coordination and assistance. This doesn’t mean the university is responding to every fire in the state individually, but what we can do is coordinate with counties using their assets and bolster those assets in advance so that, when a response is needed, it’s more efficient and quicker.”

Science will play a critical role, Ziccardi adds.

“A big part of this program will be to do research on how to better respond to domestic animals that may be at risk during disasters, and also learn how to better treat them,” he says.

Natural disasters can pose tremendous problems for animal rescue personnel and care providers. Wrangling terrified, frequently injured animals who have been left behind poses unique challenges, as does housing them and reuniting them with their owners. Equally challenging is their immediate medical care, which may involve issues ranging from burns and smoke inhalation to blunt force trauma and exposure to toxic substances.

In addition to pets and wildlife, veterinary practices themselves may be adversely impacted by a wildfire or other natural disaster. Still vivid in the minds of many is the 2018 Camp Fire, which nearly destroyed the entire town of Paradise and resulted in 86 fatalities. During this event, Lairmore received a call from one of his directors regarding a veterinarian whose practice was almost completely surrounded by flames. Incredibly, the building was unharmed, but the owner was immediately overwhelmed with injured animals, which is common following destructive disasters.

“We sent teams to work directly with the veterinarian to assist community efforts in sheltering, such as at county and state fairgrounds, then in the triage of the animals, and finally going into the burned area during the recover stage, looking for animals that may have somehow survived,” Lairmore says.

Almost all veterinary specialties will be involved in CVET, including general practitioners, large animal practitioners, exotics specialists, respiratory, and cardiovascular specialists in case of smoke inhalation, ocular specialists, and dermatologists. Capture specialists will also play a significant role.

At the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, practitioners are thinking outside the box when it comes to treating the unique medical issues often accompanying a natural disaster. For example, Jamie Peyton, DVM, DACVECC, CVC, CVA, CCRT, developed a technique using tilapia skin to treat burns on bear paws. Meanwhile, John Madigan, DVM, MS, modified a pickup truck with a plastic tank and unchlorinated water for the rescue of koi, a large, colorful breed of carp often kept in outdoor garden pools that would almost certainly perish in the face of a raging wildfire.

“It’s amazing how many of our faculty and students have come to the forefront during emergencies,” Lairmore says. “Without compensation—they are all volunteers.”

The volunteers make it happen

The school’s veterinary specialists and students are only one component of CVET. Equally important, if not more so, are the stakeholder volunteers who will be involved in almost every aspect of a disaster response. Training them to a state standard and supporting them with equipment and instruction are key missions for the new initiative.

Instruction will include understanding the command-and-control structure coordinated through the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), so veterinarians and others don’t place themselves at risk before a disaster scene is safe; understanding the unique aspects of fire and smoke injuries; identifying animals and returning them to their owners; and disaster team management.

CVET is still getting off the ground, so California veterinarians and others who would like to participate are encouraged to first reach out to the CVMA Medical Reserve Corps (CAVMRC), which currently boasts more than 2,000 members.

“We’re going to be working closely with the CVMA as CVET unveils, so one of the first groups of individuals we’re going to reach out to regarding specific training will be CAVMRC members,” Ziccardi says.

Another way veterinarians can assist CVET, Ziccardi adds, is by educating clients regarding the importance of disaster planning.

“Make sure clients have a plan so, if they have to evacuate, they can bring their pets with them,” he says. “Ensure they have a plan for their livestock. Make sure they have a disaster kit that includes all items necessary for the care of their animals if they are going to be out of their home. All of those are things local veterinarians can do to assist both the public as well as help out during disasters.”

Don Vaughan is an award-winning writer who frequently writes about veterinary-related topics.

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