Veterinarians and various animal organizations quickly sprung into action with relief efforts after the massive earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan in March 2011. Ongoing efforts include veterinary medical care to injured animals, deploying search and rescue teams and donating medical and food supplies, among others.
Japan’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake places it as the fourth largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and the largest in Japan since modern instrumental recordings began 130 years ago, according to the United States Geological Survey.
Less than an hour after the earthquake struck, tsunami waves of more than 30 feet high added to the destruction.
The physical damage is estimated at almost $200 billion, according to CBS News. Other numbers behind the disaster: nearly 6,000 people are confirmed dead, at least 10,000 people remain missing and almost a half million people are homeless, many without heat in snow and sub-freezing temperatures, CBS News reported today.
Rescue workers told CBS that they cling to the hope that they can find survivors. They’ve already saved more than 15,000 people, but thousands more are still believed to be missing.
Helping in those efforts is the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. Currently, six canines and their firefighter-handlers are combing the wreckage in Ofunato City on the northeast coast of Japan to find survivors buried alive in the rubble, the nonprofit organization reported earlier this week.
The job of the search dogs is to find live victims in the debris left by the earthquake and tsunami. All rescue personnel will be awaiting a “Bark Alert” from the dogs, letting them know there is someone in need of rescue, according to the organization.
“Every minute counts as the teams work to find people buried beneath the rubble,” said Wilma Melville, founder of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. “After the Haiti deployment, this is a battle-seasoned group. If there are people still alive in the rubble, the dogs will find them.”
Another concern is that many animals are missing and being left behind as people flee the area, overwhelming local animal shelters. As of press time, there weren’t any published reports on how many animals—household pets or livestock—have been affected, but Animal Refuge Kansai (ARK) expected the number to be large.
“From our experience of the Great Hanshin earthquake on Jan. 17, 1995, we know that the number of homeless pets may be immense,” according to the nonprofit organization. “Most of the animals that came to us came from the emergency centers where people had sought refuge with their pets. Others were ones that had been rescued from destroyed houses or off the street by local people. In that one year, we took in 600 animals, mainly dogs and cats but also rabbits and birds.”
ARK reported that it already has some facilities in place but they may need to build emergency shelters as well. One hurdle is transportation since roads and other transport links have been shut down, according to ARK.
“Our only means to get animals down to Osaka may be by helicopter, which was one method we used after the  earthquake,” ARK reported.
World Vets, a nonprofit that provides veterinary aid around the globe, is also actively involved with animal relief efforts. As of yesterday, World Vets has two people in Japan. Dr. Koji Fukumura, World Vets veterinarian, will be staying long-term as the organization’s in-country coordinator and to provide direct assistance to animals in need. Adrien Zap will be working with Animal Friends Niigata.
The organization noted on its website that it has a series of relief teams lined up and on standby pending the outcome of its first responder deployment.
“As long as radiation and nuclear threats remain we must consider the safety of volunteers and not contribute to potential victims of this unfortunate situation,” according to World Vets.
The nonprofit is also coordinating pallet-load shipments of supplies to aid local animal welfare groups in Japan. World Vets is accepting donations of veterinary supplies and/or medicines, including de-worming medicines, vaccinations, fluid replacements, wound treatments and cages. Donations of these items can be shipped to World Vets headquarters, 802 1st Ave. N, Fargo, ND 58102.
Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support, a coalition of three groups, is hoping to support animal rescue efforts by collecting donations and keeping the public informed through its Facebook page. The three groups in the coalition are the Japan Cat Network, Animal Garden Niigata and HEART-Tokushima.
Other organizations helping with the earthquake/tsunami aftermath, whether it be sending rescue teams to Japan, collecting donations or other efforts, are the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Humane Society International.
GuideStar, which provides data on more than 1.8 million IRS-recognized nonprofits, has launched a website page for those interested in donating money for recovery efforts in Japan.
The website lists nonprofits helping in Japan, as well as money giving tips. For example, GuideStar recommends thoroughly researching an organization before donating money.
GuideStar also noted that disaster relief is a long-term process. Donating in a few months or even a year can still make a difference, according to the organization.
Close to Home: Veterinarian Addresses Radiation Risks to Pets
There is currently no radiation risk to pets in California due to the damaged nuclear power plants in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami, according to Michael Kent, DVM, a faculty veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, who specializes in radiation cancer therapy.
The university’s William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital has been receiving three to five calls per hour from clients inquiring about potential radiation risks to their pets should the radioactive material from Japan’s nuclear power plants cross the Pacific and reach California.
“At this point there is no risk to pets in California stemming from radiation released from the tragedy that continues to unfold in Japan,” Dr. Kent said yesterday.
Clients are also asking whether they should give potassium iodide tablets to their pets as a preventative.
“While potassium iodide might help protect dogs, cats and other pets, as it would people, from the risks of radiation exposure in the unlikely event that radioactive iodine reaches here in appreciable levels, giving it ahead of time carries risks and would be ill advised,” Kent said. “Side effects to pets taking potassium iodide, especially if they ingest too much, include severe and even life threatening allergic reactions, gastrointestinal upset (vomiting, diarrhea, anorexia), decreased normal thyroid function (hypothyroidism) and damage to the heart. At high enough levels it can cause death.”
Kent’s recommendations mirror a March 15 public advisory from the California Department of Public Health and the California Emergency Management Agency, which warned Californians to not take potassium iodide as a precautionary measure.
“The safety of all Californians is our highest priority, and we are in constant contact with the federal agencies responsible for monitoring radiation levels across the West Coast,” according to the joint statement. “We want to emphasize that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have all stated that there is no risk expected to California or its residents as a result of the situation in Japan.”