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Vet team founder in Japan urges pet owners to thoroughly prepare for disasters

A veterinarian medical assistance team (VMAT) member is seen at work in Mashiki, Kumamoto Prefecture, in May 2016, after strong earthquakes struck the region. (Photo courtesy of the Institute of Environmental Science of Animal)

YUKIHASHI, Fukuoka -- As the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake approaches, experts gave advice to pet owners about preparing for disasters, including stockpiling their food and making them identifiable.

    In the 2011 disasters, many pets -- which were just like family members to their owners -- died or went missing. Veterinarian Toshihiro Funatsu, 63, who heads the Institute of Environmental Science of Animal (IESA), based in the west Japan city of Yukihashi in Fukuoka Prefecture, and who was a founding member of a veterinarian medical assistance team (VMAT), spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun about what measures pet owners can take in preparation for disasters.

    The first VMAT in Japan was founded by the Fukuoka Veterinary Medical Association in 2013. Its members, including vets, animal nurses and others, rescue animals in areas that have just been hit by disasters and set up shelters for them. VMATs have been formed in around 10 prefectures around the country, and all of the seven prefectures on the island of Kyushu in southwestern Japan are slated to have VMATs by the end of 2021.

    Funatsu's experience in July 2011, when he was rescuing animals that had been left in restricted zones after the triple nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, inspired him to form a VMAT.

    "Pets that couldn't leave their homes were very thin, and even though I left food for them, it went untouched," Funatsu recalled. "Many indoor dogs were in a sorry state."

    Funatsu also saw dog and cat carcasses lying on the ground.

    According to the Ministry of the Environment's records on animals in disaster areas, as many as some 2,500 dogs died in the 2011 disasters in Fukushima Prefecture alone. The ministry created a guideline in 2013 that in principle owners and their pets evacuate together.

    Based on his experience working in areas struck by disasters, including the 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes, Funatsu recommended three minimum measures that pet owners should take: training their animals, stockpiling their food and making them identifiable.

    "In terms of training, it's a basic measure to ensure that dogs are used to being around other people," Funatsu explained. "They can't be rescued if they growl or bite when found in disaster areas."

    It is important to make sure in advance to familiarize pets with people other than their owners, and to get them accustomed to travelling in cars and environments other than their home. It is also a good idea to familiarize pets with crates for use when evacuating. Many pets do not like to be put into such containers, which are also used when taking them to animal hospitals. Funatsu offered this advice: "A pet will like a carrier if by putting food inside you make it think that it's a place where they get to eat." Also, it is necessary to vaccinate pets for infectious diseases and to neuter and spay them.

    The amount of stockpiled food should last for about a week. It is ideal to prepare both dry food and wet food for dogs and cats, instead of just one type. Even when their appetites are low, they may want to eat if they can smell heated wet food.

    According to an environment ministry survey conducted after the Kumamoto earthquakes, the governments of Kumamoto Prefecture and the city of Kumamoto rescued 1,094 dogs and 1,405 cats. Among them, owners of 400 dogs and 11 cats were found. It became apparent that it is difficult to identify cats as many of them do not have collars or microchips.

    Funatsu suggested attaching to pets' collars ID tags with the owner's contact information written on it, or using a smart tag device which enables the owner to track their animal, in addition to implanting microchips under the skin to prevent losing track of them.

    Though the central government recommends owners evacuate with their pets, in some cases it is difficult for shelters to accommodate the animals due to limited space.

    "It's a good idea to ask the manager at the shelter facility or the community association in advance whether they accommodate evacuees with pets," said Kenji Rikimaru, 61, the Fukuoka Prefecture branch head of the Nihon Bousaisi Kai (Japan disaster prevention officers association). He recommended that when possible owners take their pets to participate in drills conducted by local voluntary disaster prevention organizations.

    If a disaster occurs when owners are out of their homes, they probably won't be able to get to pets left on the premises for a while.

    "Only owners can protect their pets," Funatsu said. "We want owners to survive disasters and keep their pets at any cost."

    (Japanese original by Azusa Yamazaki, Kyushu News Department)

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