Written by Dr. Catherine Pollack
Due to the dire need for veterinary services, the idea of setting up a pop-up veterinary clinic was born next to the HSUS food distribution point, so that the local community could access basic veterinary care. Kelly Donithan / HSUS
In the following weeks Hurricane Ian Our team has coordinated devastated communities across Florida, to create a pet food distribution center and pop-up veterinary clinic offering free veterinary services in a regional library parking lot in Port Charlotte, Florida. Dr. Catherine Pollack, Vice President of the International Society of Companionship and Engagement Animals for International Animal Welfare, who is also coincidentally a licensed vet from Florida, made the trip to help set up a pop-up clinic, to meet the demand for veterinary services while a local vet clinics were closed. In this guest blog, Dr. Pollack tells us what it was like to provide much-needed care to this community.
When I arrived in Florida two weeks after Hurricane Ian, I didn’t know what to expect. I thought that after several days of storm the demand for services might subside. This is far from the truth.
Hurricane Ian devastated communities throughout southwest Florida, affecting people and animals alike. To help support pet owners during this crisis, the Humane Society of the United States has launched an initiative to distribute pet food, stationed outside a library parking lot in Port Charlotte. The team distributed much-needed pet food and supplies to dogs, cats, chickens, hamsters, rabbits, and more for free. The need was astonishing: more than 500 cars passed each day to bring supplies.
While people are passing through the distribution center, we have animal rescue team I learned that providing supplies only peeled the surface of what people needed for their animals. Several people told our team that their animals were sick, injured and unable to get to a vet. Most veterinary clinics in the area were severely damaged and closed indefinitely. Due to the damage to homes in the area, many people were also living in tents and in cars with their pets, and many had untreated diseases, flea infestations, and severe mats.
Due to the dire need for veterinary services, the idea of setting up a temporary veterinary clinic next to the food distribution point was born, so that the local community would have access to basic veterinary care. As a veterinarian licensed to practice in the state, I was in an ideal position to help rally local veterinary support, procure supplies and medications, and get our clinic up and running. When I arrived, the first step was to get an actual clinic. This primarily consisted of several tents equipped with basic veterinary supplies. After two calls to county officials to explain our plan, a text message was sent to residents to announce free veterinary care.
As soon as the text message reached the community about our pop-up vet clinic, we were overwhelmed with people bringing in their sick and injured animals. By 8:30 every morning, a line was forming in the parking lot of desperate pet owners to see their animals by a vet. We decided to increase our capacity, and make an urgent appeal for help (veterinarians, technicians and supplies) across the state to meet the demand. Fortunately, the Florida Veterinary Medical Association responded, and quickly put together a list of vets and technicians eager to help.
We were initially limited in our resources of drugs and supplies, but we wanted to do more. These people and their animals have endured a lot. We wanted them to receive not only basic veterinary care for their animals, but the best care possible. For many people, their pets were all they had left.
After a little hustle, we got to work. We had coolers full of donated medicines and vaccines, a makeshift pharmacy and a preventive care station that happily provided the public with ticks and fleas prevention for their animals. The cases of the animals presented to the clinic varied greatly: some cats had urinary diseases and stress fractures. We saw a rabbit that refused to eat, a dog rescued after nearly drowning in a puddle, an orphaned baby squirrel, and a chicken with a broken wing. You name it, she saw our pop-up vet clinic. On the second day of the operation, we received more than 240 patients.
Many people were living out of their cars and tents with their animals after their homes were destroyed. A woman arrived at the clinic in her pickup: inside were her eight cats and dogs, all living together in the car. She wanted to treat the animals for fleas and get their injections. And while some of the cases we’ve seen have been related to hurricanes (ruptures, broken bones), there have also been cases where these animals haven’t seen a vet for a long time, if any. Due to social and economic barriers and lack of access to services, this was their first opportunity to obtain care for their beloved pets.
There was a huge demand for basic veterinary care, such as administering vaccinations and getting manicures done, and we were happy to provide these services while the veterinary clinics in the area remained closed. Some people were desperate to take care of their animals. While personal hygiene is not routinely considered part of disaster medicine, many of these pets now live in unsanitary environments where homes are flooded. We were able to get the suction and cleaning done, to the best of our ability, with little electricity and no running water. Not only was it important for the animals, but it also gave owners peace of mind that their animals would stay healthy, and hopefully set the animal up for a lifetime of ongoing veterinary care.
The clinic also provided a place for lost pets to be reunited with their owners. One of the last days we were there, a woman who had already visited our clinic with her dogs came back with a cute Yorkie she found running down the highway. I immediately took this lost dog and brought it to us. Although the Yorkie had matte fur and was covered in dirt and bumps, she had a rabies mark and a collar: We knew she had a family somewhere, so we worked on posting pictures of the dog on social media for the missing pet. Within hours, she was reunited with her owner, who had been searching for her since she ran away during the storm.
I’m now back from helping out with the Hurricane Ian response, but my mind is still filled with the hundreds of people and animals I’ve met. In less than a week, we have treated more than 881 patients and given thousands more flea, tick and heartworm preventatives to keep them healthy until regular veterinary services resume. When I think about the whole experience, I can’t help but think of how preventive veterinary care after a disaster like Hurricane Ian is just as important as providing urgent care, especially when pets live in such close quarters with people. Disasters like Hurricane Ian also reveal the lack of access to affordable veterinary care that already existed in many communities. This is the reason for initiatives that provide access to care for underserved communities like ours Pets for life program and Veterinary services for rural animals very important. Our clients at the pop-up clinic were leaving in happy tears, so we are grateful we were able to help their animals and vaccinate their pets, which they could not afford before.
In many cases, when people lose everything, these pets are the only family they have left. Providing this community took a really team effort. The Florida Veterinary Medical Association, the Tampa Bay Veterinary Society, the Charlotte County Animal Welfare Association, and Nate’s Honor Animal Rescue, to name a few, were instrumental in making this happen. Thanks to their support, the animals in Charlotte County have received the utmost care from the best vets in Florida. It was truly one of the most cherished experiences of my life, being able to help this community of families and their pets in their time of need.
You can support such life-saving efforts by Donate to the Emergency Animal Relief Fundensuring that our team can continue to answer the call during times of emergency wherever, whenever and however the animals need us.
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