Hurricane Harvey animals

By Gregory Castle

In the immediate wake of Hurricane Harvey, Best Friends deployed search and rescue and sheltering teams to Houston. We also called upon our amazing Best Friends Network partners to assist in transporting dogs and cats from the region in coordination with our efforts and in support of other organizations. Their efforts alone moved nearly 1,300 dogs and cats already in shelters to safety with partnering organizations around the country.

Our sheltering work began at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in collaboration with the Montgomery County Animal Shelter (MCAS). In those early days of the response, Best Friends was the first sheltering operation in the Houston area to establish a 30-day hold period to allow families to locate and reclaim their storm-displaced pets. The state of Texas only mandated a three-day hold, with no special consideration for storm-related pets, but we knew that would not be a reasonable interim to allow affected families (many of whom had their cars and homes flooded) to get it together to check shelters for their animals.

We not only established the 30-day hold, which subsequently became the best practices norm, we also committed to placing unclaimed pets with rescue groups and shelters around the country that would guarantee an adoption outcome for these unfortunate animals.

Rescuers beat a path to our door and with the help and support that we received from MCAS as well as a team of superb sheltering volunteers from the American Humane Association, 1,136 dogs and cats received care at the fairgrounds emergency shelter. Any pet who was not a pre-storm shelter evacuee or an owner surrender was placed in the 30-day holding protocol to allow their people adequate time to reclaim them.

On September 7, less than two weeks into the disaster, we began relocating nearly 600 animals to a 150,000-square-foot space at the NRG Arena in Houston in order to better care for the animals. The NRG Arena space has room for appropriate kenneling and is more centrally located for facilitating reunions. On Monday, September 11, the Pet Reunion Pavilion, as we dubbed the NRG Arena space, began welcoming the public to look for their pets.

And then a disaster within the disaster: One of the dogs who had come into our care at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds was diagnosed with distemper, despite having been vaccinated upon arrival and receiving a booster after two weeks. While every precaution was taken from the start, with veterinary oversight from day one, the first days of any disaster sheltering are less than ideal, with many possible opportunities for contagion. Rescued animals are often transported from the field by boat or car in forced proximity to one another, and they may be held at makeshift staging areas overnight. Household pets may be confined with street dogs and some animals may have never received any vaccinations at all.

Canine distemper virus is a highly contagious and potentially fatal disease that presents first with upper respiratory symptoms and, depending on the severity of infection in a given dog, may move to the central nervous system, with distressing and sometimes fatal consequences. There is no cure, but prompt symptomatic treatment and support can aid in recovery. Puppies and unvaccinated adolescents are most vulnerable; fully vaccinated adult dogs are unlikely to catch it.

With a population of around 500 dogs at the Pet Reunion Pavilion, we were looking at a potentially devastating situation. Definitive test results were obscured by the fact that each dog had been recently vaccinated and the vaccine itself can cause a false positive test result.

In traditional sheltering environments, a disease containment policy — euphemistically referred to as “depopulating” or killing all suspect dogs — would have been employed. This was not something we would ever consider. Instead, we sought direction from one of the nation’s leading shelter medicine veterinarians, at the University of Florida, and implemented a rigorous management protocol within the NRG Arena. The protocol segregated the dogs based on test results and symptoms, or lack thereof, and limited access to each group to designated staff and volunteers. Rigid anti-contagion handling and disinfection routines were also imposed.

While distemper is not uncommon across the country, it is particularly prevalent in the South, and the Houston area has been hard-hit. A recent outbreak at a Houston shelter affected 80 dogs, with a mortality rate of about 50 percent.

We were also acutely aware that shelter volunteers, transport and receiving partners, staff members and families already reunited with their pets might be affected, and therefore needed to be notified. So, we immediately contacted more than 1,100 individuals to alert them about the situation and committed to covering any costs of testing or needed care that might result from collateral exposure. Thankfully, to date, there have been no incidents of contagion outside the emergency-sheltering environment. (It can take two to three weeks for distemper symptoms to appear, and weeks or months for a dog to be considered in the clear.)

Of the 800-plus dogs who have come into our care, 79 tested positive for distemper. Of that group, 16 dogs were cleared as false positives and, sadly, six were euthanized because of respiratory failure while receiving treatment, including oxygen therapy, at outside clinics. I am profoundly saddened by our inability to save the lives of those dogs, and I know that our staff and volunteers who devoted weeks of loving attention and support to their treatment are even more deeply affected.

A further consequence of this outbreak has been to impose a delay on giving all potentially exposed dogs the OK to be adopted. That’s why Best Friends is still running a sheltering operation in Houston.

Going forward, we will be moving all the remaining dogs who have tested positive to a smaller secondary facility, where we will continue to care for them as long as is necessary. We will also wind down the NRG Arena operation and transfer the rest of the unclaimed dogs for adoption after a prudent holding period is completed later in October. We will move out of the NRG Arena by November 1.

I have instructed our team of veterinarians and caregivers to undertake a complete review of all the aspects of our response that we could control to identify weaknesses or possible mistakes that might have contributed to this situation, as well as the intervention protocols that have minimized its possible impact.

With that said, I am tremendously proud of all of our staff, volunteers and partners who rose to this challenge with selfless service, professionalism and personal commitment. The work has been hard, the hours long and the emotional toll intense. I also want to thank all of our members and supporters who have made it possible for Best Friends to see through our commitment to provide individualized care for every animal who has come into our care.


Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society