October 15, 2013

The Veterinary Emergency Team: Caring For Animals Under Dire Circumstances

When disaster strikes, people need medical help immediately.

Very often, so do animals.

To respond to that need, Texas A&M University established the Veterinary Emergency Team (VET) based out of its College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences in 2010.  It is the largest and most sophisticated mobile unit of its type in the country, and it has been called on several times in recent years to treat injured animals under dire circumstances.

The mission of the group is to provide veterinary care for animals in a disaster situation, and this includes support for canine search-and-rescue teams attached to the Texas Task Force One.  The team also trains and educates veterinary students by offering elective courses in emergency response.

The VET team had some prior disasters from which to develop a blueprint.  In 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  During Rita, the Large Animal Hospital was converted into a hospital for special needs patients and it provided a safe haven for more than 350 evacuees. When Hurricane Ike hit in 2008, about 200 large animals were evacuated from coastal areas and transported to the Brazos County Emergency Shelter.

Dr. Deb Zoran (at left) examines Boogie with help from Vickie Spears, a dog handler from Texas Task Force One

Dr. Deb Zoran (at left) examines Boogie with help from Vickie Spears, a dog handler from Texas Task Force One. Photo: Texas A&M University

The VET team consists of trained faculty, technicians and students who participate in disasters at the local, state and national emergency levels.  Once it gets the call, it can be ready to move anywhere within a few hours.

Two major incidents have required the VET team’s assistance.  The Bastrop wildfires of 2011, caused by the state’s worst one-year drought in history, led to thousands of acres of burned land and residences, and many animals were injured. And on April 17, the horrific West fertilizer explosion killed 15 people, injured 160 and destroyed more than 150 homes and buildings.

“It takes us no more than four hours to be on the highway once we are alerted,” says Wesley Bissett, assistant professor and VET team leader, explains.

“Once we arrive on site, we can start treating animals very quickly.  At the West explosion, we treated our first animal within 30 minutes of arrival.”

The team has mobile units that are self-powered and self-sustaining, meaning they can reach remote locations miles from the nearest paved road.  Working with the Texas Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, Texas A&M AgriLife, the Texas Veterinary Medical Association and other agencies has helped build a firm foundation of support for the work of the VET team.

The VET team was able to purchase satellite equipment, large tents, portable chutes and stalls, facilities for mobile kennels and other   key items used in remote spots.  The Texas Division of Emergency Management also assisted with equipment needs.

VET emergency team leader Wes Bissett (center) goes over a planning meeting with staff

VET emergency team leader Wes Bissett (center) goes over a planning meeting with staff. Photo: Texas A&M University

Once at a disaster site, the VET team is able to treat almost any animal injury, from scratches to broken bones and surgery if needed.

“All we need is a flat spot on the road to set up,” Bissett says.

“We have our own generators and power system. Once we got to West, we started treatment very soon.  We treated 122 animals, mainly dogs and horses and some of the injuries were quite severe. Some of the animals had gone literally through a shell-shocked type of situation with the huge explosion.  You could tell they were having difficulty with hearing.”

The VET team’s trailers, ranging from 35 to 54 feet in length, came in handy.

“We definitely have some of the very best equipment – if not the best – of any mobile veterinary unit in the country,” he adds.  “We can literally set up a hospital and operating anywhere.”

Recalls Dana Whitaker, a registered veterinary technician who has been with the VET team since its inception, “The Bastrop fire situation was unique because in Texas, we are used to seeing hurricanes as the biggest disaster. But once we got there, we saw just how bad the situation was with the large fires.

“Probably 80 percent of the animal cases we saw involved injured cats, but we also treated dogs, horses, a pot-bellied pig and even a deer fawn a firefighter had found.   Some of the residents there had lost everything except their pets, so they were very grateful for our help, which is rewarding for all of us.

VET emergency team leader Wes Bissett discusses treatment plans with veterinary technicians

VET emergency team leader Wes Bissett discusses treatment plans with veterinary technicians. Photo: Texas A&M University

“When we got to the West explosion site, we did not know what to expect,” she adds.  “The damage was terrible, and it looked a tornado had come through because all of the buildings and homes were flattened. The animals we treated needed fluids and you could tell they were very glad to see us.

“What appeals to me about the whole VET team concept is that it’s the ideal form of service – we serve the community and also the animals. It’s why I got into treating animals in the first place.”

Bissett says a key component of the VET team is the experience students get from each trip.

“There’s nothing like practical experience, and this is some of the best experience the students will ever find,” he notes.

“We will never make a trip without several veterinary students.  This is the best possible learning tool for them, and they get to learn by doing. “

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Media contact: Keith Randall, News & Information Services, at (979) 845-4644

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