UC Davis veterinarians and campus community provide aid to wildfire-impacted animals

UC Davis veterinarians and campus community provide aid to wildfire-impacted animals

Photo Credits: DAVID MARK / PIXABAY

University serves as go-to when wildfire aid is needed

It’s fire season and UC Davis knows its role in helping out: As the number one veterinary school in the United States, UC Davis provides relief, aid and treatments to animals harmed in wildfires and other natural disasters.

“We’re identified as a resource because of our veterinary school so we have a lot of staff, faculty and students who volunteer,” said John Madigan, a distinguished professor in the UC Davis school of veterinary medicine and the director of the Veterinary Emergency Response Team (VERT).

“VERT manages most of the cases in the field and makes decisions to ship animals into the VMTH when their injuries are too severe to be handled in the field,” said Michelle Hawkins, a professor of avian and exotic animal medicine in the department of Veterinary Medicine and Epidemiology and School of Veterinary Medicine.

When a natural disaster occurs, such as the recent wildfires, UC Davis receives requests for aid from the state office of emergency services or from local sources in Yolo County. Necessary aid may include veterinary supervision, assistance with sheltering, biosecurity and preventing infections. The UC Davis William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH) itself is a referral base for severely injured animals, according to Madigan.

“We are not the only ones who give help, but we make ourselves available to assist with veterinary care to animals,” Madigan said.

In response to the 2018 Camp Fire, 55 student volunteers and 10 veterinarians helped out, according to an article by the Association of American Universities. Veterinarians and volunteers involved with VERT cared for 950 affected animals, including chickens, ducks, pet birds, llamas, goats, horses, alpacas, sheep, dogs and cats, all housed at the Butte County fairgrounds, according to Madigan. A total of 40 to 50 cats and dogs who suffered burns from the fire were sent to the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital for severe care, Madigan said. 

A second VERT team was sent to a Red Cross shelter to care for people and pets at the same fairgrounds. Madigan also led teams into the burned areas to perform checkups and deliver food, water and supplies to animals sheltering in place once the areas were safe to navigate through. One-hundred thirty students are in the VERT program, according to Madigan.

“We as veterinarians part of VERT did everything in our power to help as many animals as possible,” Hawkins said.

Some of these animals had injuries directly related to the fires, such as burns or smoke damage. These animals were also sometimes indirectly harmed by the fires — some animals were hit by cars or cut by fencing when trying to run away from harm. Other fleeing-related injuries include broken or stressed limbs, wire cuts, issues from smoke inhalation, stress injuries, gastrointestinal problems, lack of eating or dehydration.

“In veterinary medicine, you use all the skills you have to help the animals,” Madigan said. “Through physical exams you can make treatments such as topical treatments for burn care, giving them fluids, controlling their diet, putting them in air conditioned units, giving stressed out animals sedation or tranquilization or pain relief. It’s those kinds of things, just like you do with a person.”

With the expert help provided by UC Davis, the animals’ survival rates are typically high, Madigan said. Once animals are treated either in the hospital or at the temporary resource sites, owners are contacted through pet identification tags, microchips, or advertisements on websites.

“For a fire as extensive as [the] one in Paradise, with the intensity of heat, a lot of animals succumbed and didn’t make it,” Madigan said. “In this case, severe burns were often fatal. But there is usually a very high survival rate, and we can help return the animals to their owners.”

Due to the high amounts of donations to the UC Davis Veterinary Catastrophic Need Fund at the School of Veterinary Medicine and donations to VERT itself, enough funds are generated so that veterinarians do not need to charge pet owners for the costs of care, according to Madigan. Through social media posts requesting funds, usually enough money can be raised to cover treatment costs.

Once the animals’ injuries from natural disasters are treated, questions arise as to how they will recover and resume their normal lives. Maurice Pitesky, a veterinarian and associate specialist in cooperative extension for poultry health and food safety epidemiology in the School of Veterinary Medicine, studies food safety effects from wildfire on poultry eggs. Backyard birds spend hours every day eating off of the ground, so the toxins that wildfires spread are big concerns for human health. 

After studying wildfires from 2017, Pitesky said his lab concluded that no correlation was found between the location of the fires and the presence of heavy metals in backyard eggs. Lead was found in some of the surveilled eggs from impacted areas, but there was no spatial correlation between the location of the fires and the presence of heavy metals.

“We cannot have healthy food without a healthy environment,” Pitesky said. “If there are heavy metals, fire retardants and pathogens in our environment, then our foods are going to have those same chemicals.”

In order to reduce trauma for animals when natural disasters occur, pet owners who live in risk areas should be prepared. Madigan said that people should always have supplies, food and water for themselves and their pets, all pets should be microchipped and have collars with identification tags, families should make a plan for where to meet up with each other in case a disaster occurs while they are not together and, finally, individuals should evacuate early to be safe.

“Just like with the Camp Fire, in many cases, there is little time and people often are fleeing for their own lives,” Hawkins said. “Developing the best possible disaster plans for you and your animals in advance, and even performing drills to practice evacuation will give you the greatest chance of everyone getting out of the disaster safe and sound.”

Written by: Margo Rosenbaum — science@theaggie.org