May Come with a Little Baggage

News reports this fall have been dominated by tragic natural disasters from all over the western hemisphere, one right after the other. The cost to human life and belongings is so enormous that four-legged survivors risk getting lost in the shuffle. If you are participating in the disaster relief effort by adopting an animal from hurricane territory, there are a few special considerations that merit your attention.

Hurricane Katrina was a towering milestone in the landscape of disaster relief. In many cases, pets were left behind in the panic or even forcibly separated from their owners in an attempt to prioritize rescue efforts. In the aftermath, animal adoption agencies of various kinds were flooded with tens of thousands of lost pets, some in search of new homes and others frantically sought by their original families. Humane societies all over the country reached out to help, and soon hurricane refugees were turning up everywhere.

Following in Katrina’s footsteps, this year’s catastrophic storms have sent truckloads of animals streaming out to distant points of the compass in an effort to thin their numbers near the disaster site. You might find yourself in a position to adopt one of these individuals right here at home, a thousand miles from the wreckage. It’s important to bear in mind that these animals may come with their own set of disease conditions that are not routinely encountered in your part of the country. You’ll want to discuss the geographic origin of your pet when visiting the doctor, along with its implications for her health care.

Irma and Harvey pets might be carrying leptospirosis, for example, since this organism thrives in warm and wet conditions. They might come down with the flu and other respiratory disease, even after they are in your possession, brought on by crowded conditions typically encountered during the rescue and transport process. It’s not unusual for young animals to have missed essential puppy and kitten vaccinations because there has been no routine in their young lives. For that reason, they could develop parvovirus or distemper—both totally preventable diseases. In addition, Gulf states have their own set of parasites that might be unfamiliar to your local vet. Tick-borne diseases such as Ehrlichia and the mosquito-borne heartworm will be common conditions in these refugees, as will certain gastrointestinal parasites such as hookworm and the little-known heterobilharzia, a fluke that damages the liver and intestinal wall of dogs. This worm infestation originates only in the Gulf states and can’t be detected by standard parasite testing. Most vets outside that area have never seen a case of it.

Hurricane pets may be transported large distances to reach you, and—because of that—might be more prone to diseases, even ones that your vet has never seen. Don’t let that scare you off, though. These pets have been traumatized by their experiences, and there will be many who need the open arms of a new family to set them on the path to a safe and happy future.

Dr. M.S. Regan