Into the Breach: Vet Teams Deploy to New York, Washington

Following the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, teams of veterinarians and specialists responded to help in rescue efforts. These teams responded on the first day to assist animals injured in the assaults and to provide medical service to rescue dogs.

Rescue and so-called "cadaver dogs" (trained to find fatalities) descended upon New York. More than 300 dogs are taking part in the effort. In the first 24 hours, the dogs have helped save six people. Other dogs are helping to locate the casualties.

But the work is dangerous for dog and handler. The rubble poses its own set of risks; smoke and ash threaten to overwhelm human and animal. Mobile animal emergency hospitals have been set up near the disaster area.

The teams (formally called Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams or VMAT for short) were set up in 1993 to respond to any catastrophe. The aftermath of any disaster – natural or man-made – puts the public health at risk. The injured must be tended to, scarce medical supplies must be used to maximum benefit and the threat of disease reduced.

VMATs comprise trained vets, veterinary technicians and support personnel. They can be deployed within 24 to 48 hours to deal with a crisis. First formed in 1994, they have been called upon after hurricanes, floods and tornadoes.

At the emergency site, teams "triage"– determining the most serious cases – and stabilize patients, and provide basic vet medical care. They carry enough supplies to set up field hospitals, a sort of veterinary M.A.S.H. unit. The units can provide medical assistance for up to 3 days before requiring resupply.

As mentioned earlier, the goal is twofold: stabilize animals and prevent zoonotic illnesses (diseases that can be transmitted between species). VMATs may also be called upon to help dogs in the military, the Secret Service, police dogs and other animals in government service. The important role VMATs play in time of catastrophe led the federal government to incorporate these teams in its National Disaster Medical System.

The NDMS was developed to provide medical care for victims if local and state resources are stretched to the limit. VMAT would respond to the needs of animals in the same way that Disaster Medical Assistance Teams would for humans. Members of each team are volunteers who possess some critical skill. In an emergency, they can be called up for a period of 2 weeks as "special needs" employees of the U.S. Public Health Service. In other words, they become temporary employees of the federal government.

In addition to vet care, overseeing food safety is another important aspect of veterinarians. In a disaster, the quality of food and water may be questionable. Vets are asked to assist in public health matters. They also provide biological and chemical terrorism surveillance, hazard mitigation and animal decontamination.