Best Friends Blog

Hurricane Harvey animals

Hurricane Harvey dog who is being fosteredIn 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. Many Houston area shelters kept to a three-day hold time, which is their local policy, 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.

Hurricane Harvey dog receiving medical care

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.

Dog who was rescued in aftermath of Hurricane HarveyWe 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.


Gregory Castle
CEO Best Friends Animal Society

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  • me

    Great job.

  • Layne David Dicker

    I spent a week in Houston, volunteering with the dogs diagnosed with distemper. One week, hundreds and hundreds of bootie, glove and gown changes, feedings, walks, discussions as to best practices, dog cuddles and bottles of Gatorade later, my respect for your organization only deepened. Only fast thinking, utilization of all available resources and the ability adapt saved these dogs, so many of which now occupy a huge place in my heart. So many brilliant people both planning and enacting those plans. It appeared at times chaotic, but uncannily effective. No action was wasted; it either worked or became a learning moment. Lifelong friendships were formed. And, once again, history was re-written: Distemper is not a death sentence. Not even close. I was there when we lost 5 of those 6 poor souls. It was devastating. But only thanks to your efforts, 6 was not 60, or more.

    • Colleen wiley

      One of the fur pups lost was my boy Atticus. I had to run him up to emergency vet after he’d had a seizure. He came back a few days later and then I got word that he had passed. He was a very sweet boy. 🙁

  • D, McNeil

    Losing 6 dogs is 6 too many, but in the situation of Harvey aftermath, it’s miraculous that there weren’t more deaths due to illness. BF does careful, heartfelt work on a normal day, but during a natural disaster, its calm and intentional decisions FOR the animals is greatly admired !!!

  • Dan Fishbein

    I am awed and especially appreciative of the diligence, calm, level of expertise, and caring that Best Friends brought to this effort, and to every effort in which they involve themselves. Houston appears to have been a particularly difficult and challenging one from several angles, but that can probably be said about every large scale disaster relief. I think Best Friends response is a “Best Practice” that should be a model for any system or community. It’s clear (to me) that governments and other organizations make decisions under the heat and pressure of the event (and sometimes just guided by bureaucracy), and while recognizing the need to remain realistic and practical, BF is guided by the avoidance of choosing pragmatics while devaluing these animals’ lives. It adds a lot of time, cost, and work to the effort, but I believe BF would not have it any other way. You’re the best.