Tracking Katrina

Questions remain on health impact from displaced dogs following Hurricane Katrina, study says
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Apr 01, 2011
National Report — Little was or could be done to control infectious diseases endemic to the Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005. In the weeks that followed, rescue organizations and well-intentioned individuals came to the aid of an estimated 600,000 animals, scattering them across the country with little to no documentation or veterinary care.

Infectious disease control at temporary mass shelters focused on vaccinations and parasite control. A new study, "Prevalence of infectious diseases in cats and dogs rescued following Hurricane Katrina," recently published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, takes a look at how the animals displaced by Katrina created new animal health challenges across the country.

"The dispersal of animals possibly carrying locally endemic diseases to other regions where these infections are not typically found could contribute to new geographic ranges for these organisms," the study notes. "It could also lead to underdiagnosis in affected animals because of a low index of suspicion in their new locations."

Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA
Displaced disease: The animals in the path of Hurricane Katrian were scattered across the country and brought health problems endemic to the Gulf Coast with them.


Of the 21 rescue organizations in 13 states that participated in the study by sending in blood and serum samples for analysis, 414 dogs and 56 cats were identified that were rescued and transferred from the Gulf Coast region post-Katrina. Of the dogs, roughly 56 percent tested positive for West Nile Virus, 49 percent tested positive for Dirofilaria immitis, 24 percent for Toxoplasma gondii and 20 percent for Wolbachia pipiens. Of the cats, about 87 percent tested positive for Bartonella spp, 23 percent for Bartonella henselae and 16 percent for Toxoplasma gondii.

"The high prevalence of heartworm infection created a risk for transmission to other dogs intensively housed in the rescue shelters after the hurricane and in receiving communities where heartworm preventive medication was not commonly used," the study continues. "Although the prevalences observed in this study were typical for animals in the Gulf Coast region, all of the animals tested in the study were transferred from the disaster region to other states."

This raises concerns about the spread of the diseases to areas where they were not already a problem, possibly leading them to spread and become endemic, according to the study.

Dr. Julie Levy, director of Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine and co-author of the study, says there is no evidence the dogs that moved throughout the country after Katrina "contributed in a statistically significant way" to the spread of infectious disease. They were distributed so vastly across the country, different regions each got such a small population, any presence of a new disease would have been very diluted.

One problem after Katrina, and continuing today as animals are moved from shelters that are overcrowded to parts of the country that want more adoptable dogs, is the lack of regulation and oversight on animal transport.

"This can be done safely, but it needs to be organized and supervised by veterinarians with shelter medicine knowledge," Levy says. "Our pet welfare industry needs to be better about self-regulation. In this economy, government is really not going to make this a priority. Right now, it's just too easy for anyone to think they love animals to set up a program and move them around."

But the movement of abandoned animals by rescue organizations wasn't the only thing raising concern about disease spread after Katrina. The study estimates that many of the 2 million people displaced by the hurricane brought their pets—and their health problems—with them as they found new places to settle.


Heartworm
The risk of heartworm disease increases each year anyway and while Hurricane Katrina didn't initiate a threat, it certainly didn't help existing problems, says Dr. Tom Nelson, who serves on the board of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and is past president of the American Heartworm Society.

"We see heartworm increase every year, even without Katrina. But Katrina did bring about issues," Nelson says. "It's been going on for 50 years; Katrina just accelerated it. You're transporting 40,000 animals across the country. If you are going into areas that have been low, you're increasing the reservoir of infection.


"Heartworm is typically more prevalent in the South, Nelson says, since it is one of the pockets of the country where there are new strains of heartworm infection that are more tolerant to standard preventives.

"What's the definition of resistance? That's what a lot of us are struggling with right now," he says. "But with any type of toxin or poison, biological systems are in a bell-shaped curve. Most of us are in the middle, but some are in the far left. Heartworms are that way, too. There are some that are very, very sensitive; there are some that take a higher level (to prevent)."

It's difficult to say whether more frequent reports of new heartworm strains outside the area was the result of post-Katrina shift in dog and cat populations from the South or just a coincidence, he says.

Struggling to cope
One place where increased infectious diseases have become a problem is in New England. Privately-funded low-cost spay and neuter programs have kept shelter populations low, but it also creates more demand for adoptable pets.

In Maine, infectious diseases brought in by pets translated to a small concern before Katrina, but that concern has grown in the years since.

"In the years following Katrina, I started to get phone calls from veterinarians in Maine who were telling me about these disasters of dogs they had seen that had come in from the South, been adopted by somebody, then immediately crashed with illness," says Dr. Donald Hoenig, Maine's state veterinarian.


Prior to Katrina, dogs and cats were brought into New England for adoption on a small scale, due to a low supply of adoptable pets in the area. Animals sold commercially had to meet certain criteria, including having health inspections by veterinarians and proof of several vaccinations.

But the massive exodus out of the Gulf region by the thousands of animals displaced by Hurricane Katrina changed all that.

"Nobody was calling us and saying can we bring these dogs back into Maine. They would just show up here," Hoenig says.

Hoenig estimates that thousands of dogs and cats are brought into Maine for adoption each year. He knows of one rescue organization that brings in 12 a week, and while some rescue groups are cautious about the animals they transport, many are not.

As complaints from veterinarians and pet owners who adopted sick dogs and cats increased, Hoenig says he decided to pursue a revision of Maine's rules on bringing pets into the state.

A new rule, adopted in 2007, applied to both commercially sold dog and cats, as well as those imported for adoption. Guidelines were set out regarding what vaccinations dogs and cats needed and what diseases they should be tested for. Rescue groups were required to obtain annual permits and submit reports on their adoption activities, Hoenig says.

While the new regulations are effective, the state's ability to police rescue groups is not, he says. Over the last three years since the rule took effect, 60-70 rescue groups have applied for permits. Only about 30 are currently permitted, meaning there are at least another 30 who haven't had their permits renewed.

"I don't take that to mean they're not doing business anymore. I'm just concerned they're just ignoring the rule," Hoenig says. "The main issue with us is the lack of personnel to enforce it. We lack the resources."

A recent call from a veterinarian to Hoenig revealed a sad tale of a dog brought into a clinic ridden with distemper, heartworm and hookworm. The dog came into the clinic with seven puppies and only two survived.

"This dog is in the hospital, and they don't know whether it's going to live or die," Hoenig says, adding distemper is rare in Maine. This dog was brought in from a shelter in the South and carried the disease with it.

"It's definitely a concern. Are we going to get some exotic disease here? I don't know," he says. "It's hard to tell because nothing is being checked. Garden-variety diseases are showing up a lot. That certainly represents a threat to our canine population. It's a bit frustrating from a regulatory point of view because we just can't monitor it enough to have an impact," Hoenig says, adding that other state veterinarians across New England have shared the same frustrations with him.

Moving on
While the extensive damage caused by Hurricane Katrina cannot be undone, it has provided valuable lessons on disaster management. And it's served as an impetus for reform.

One of the biggest realizations post-Katrina is the new way in which emergency management has to be approached, Hoenig says. Years ago, rescue operations focused on humans alone.

"Now, if you're going to want to evacuate people, you have to take into account their animals and where you're going to put them," Hoenig says.

The federal Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act was passed in 2006 and requires disaster planners to take animals into account and create evacuation and shelter plans not only for people, but for their pets, too.