California wildfires spur veterinary school to action

Published on October 28, 2015
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The University of California-Davis provided care at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital and through its ambulatory services for animals burned or injured in the Butte and Valley fires in California this past September. UC-Davis faculty, staff, and students treated 56 animals in all: 40 cats, five chickens, four horses, two pigs, two goats, two dogs, and one rabbit.

The Valley fire in Lake County had burned more than 76,000 acres and destroyed 1,958 homes and other structures as of early October. The Butte fire in the Sierra foothills had burned 71,000 acres and destroyed 475 homes. Authorities have confirmed the deaths of four people in the Valley fire and two in the Butte fire.

In mid-September, a team of veterinarians from several entities of the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine—the Veterinary Emergency Response Team, the Center for Equine Health, the veterinary hospital’s Large Animal Clinic, and the International Animal Welfare Training Institute—performed search-and-rescue missions and cared for animals in the fire zones, while another team treated animals back at the hospital.

University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine faculty, staff, and students treated 56 animals from the Butte and Valley fires. (Photos courtesy of UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine)

In the field, CEH director Dr. Claudia Sonder went door to door, ranch to ranch, looking for animals that had to be left behind as the fires approached so rapidly the residents barely had time to get out with their lives. Some weren’t able to get out at all.

“I encountered one owner who was trapped on her ranch by the fast-moving blaze,” Dr. Sonder said in a UC-Davis press release. “She and her dogs survived by riding out the fire in her water trough.”

She covered her head with a wet pair of blue jeans, Dr. Sonder recalled, while water funneled out of the trough by the fire’s updraft. She watched as her horses gathered in a small pond nearby, with all but their noses submerged in the water. Miraculously, they all survived.

At sunset every night, Dr. Sonder would return to “home base” for the Valley fire, the Middletown Animal Hospital, which also remained intact.

Fourth-year veterinary student Emily Putt cares for the two goats rescued from the wildfires that ravaged parts of California this past September.

For the Butte fire, several LAC residents and students assisted the staff at the Angels Camp Veterinary Hospital, where many of the animals brought to UC-Davis originated. Rescue group volunteers transported animals from Angels Camp to UC-Davis all week.

Meanwhile, back at the UC-Davis veterinary hospital, a team of veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and students—led by Dr. Steve Epstein, a specialist in the Small Animal Clinic’s Emergency and Critical Care Service—admitted animals affected by the fires almost every day for a week. Working days, nights, and through the weekend, the team handled the influx of emergency patients during a time when the specialty hospital was already at nearly 90 percent capacity with a caseload of patients unrelated to the fires.

Most of the animals remain unclaimed. Hospital administrators found 11 owners of animals among those that were rescued—three by microchip and eight by word of mouth or social media.

A fund has been established to help pay for veterinary treatment of the many fire victims. Photos and more information on the displaced animals at UC-Davis can be found here.