When Disaster Strikes, Who Cares For The Animals? Red Paw Emergency Relief Team Supports Pets Who Need Help

Sarah Frommer sits next to a stack of computer paper, carefully tearing pages into pieces like a human paper shredder. In a quiet, dark corner of the room, Patches the cat sleeps in a nest of fresh sheets and blankets. Patches has spent most of her days sleeping lately— a side effect of the heavy pain medication she receives three times a day. 

Patches is being cared for by Philadelphia’s Red Paw Emergency Relief Team, the only organization in the U.S. that provides 24/7 emergency search and rescue, transport, veterinary care, and temporary shelter to assist families with pets displaced by residential disasters. Frommer is taking care of the cat, who sustained significant burns to all four of her paws in a residential fire, until she is well enough to return to her owner, Sarah Burwell. There’s an incredibly high risk of infection, since a cat’s paw pads touch every surface. For this reason, using cat litter is not allowed, so Frommer fills Patches’ litter box with ripped up paper. 

For the first 12 hours Patches was at Frommer’s apartment, she didn’t go to the bathroom. Taking just one step on what Frommer describes as “angry, crusty, red scabs” was excruciating, even with pain meds. If Patches still didn’t use the litter box after 24 hours, Frommer was instructed by the animal hospital to extract her bladder. She knew what that meant — palpate stomach, locate bladder, squeeze — but performing this protocol isn’t as simple as it sounds. After 12 hours of Frommer coaxing and hoping, Patches finally urinated on her own. With each step she took towards the litter box, she let out a cry. 


65 percent of Americans share their households with a pet, and six out of 10 pet owners consider their animals to be members of the family. Yet there is little support to help owners care for their pets when disaster strikes. Jen Leary, a Philadelphia firefighter, was inspired to start Red Paw after seeing how little help was available to pet owners in the aftermath of devastating house fires, gas leaks, building collapses, and other residential disasters. There was no organized structure for containing, evaluating, and transporting these animals, as well as no plan in place for going into damaged buildings and searching for pets that might be still alive. Through this nonprofit organization, Leary sought to develop a new kind of emergency response resource for animals. 

“We do for pets what the fire department and the Red Cross does for people,” Leary tells Bustle. "All over the country, pets who are 'presumed dead' or thought to have 'run out of buildings' are left to die in disaster dwellings because no one there is qualified to get them out." Except for Red Paw, that is. 

When Frank Frake, Emergency Services Coordinator for Red Paw, arrived at the scene of an electrical fire on September 17th, the fire department told him that the homeowner’s cat was dead. But Burwell was sure she could feel her cat breathing, ever so slowly. 


Patches had jumped through a broken window in the 2nd floor back bedroom, where the fire originated, and hid under debris. 

“Most cats tend to stay in and hide” says Frake. As a former street cat, “Patches felt comfortable enough with the outdoors to make the jump to safety.” 

Frake found Patches alive, but limp and struggling to catch her breath. She showed signs of smoke inhalation—drooling and open-mouthed breathing. He provided Patches with oxygen before taking her to the local animal hospital where she was placed in an oxygen tank. 

She had cuts and scrapes from her difficult jump and landing, and each of her paws was badly burned, especially her right front paw. The attending doctor noted that Patches must have walked very close to the fire. 

“I don't have negative thoughts often in this line of work because I always hope for the best,” Frake explains. “However, I did not think that Patches was going to make it. She has been through a lot.” 


Yet after only two days in the hospital, Red Paw was able to hand Patches over to Frommer for fostering. One of Red Paw’s “specialty fosters,” Frommer, a veterinary assistant, has the skills to treat Patches’ burns, which is no easy task. Three times a day, Patches needs liquid pain medication administered under her tongue, as well as burn cream on her paw pads. Patches has been pretty tolerant of this regimen. Frommer holds Patches by her scruff, turns her on her side, leans on top of her, uses her body weight to hold Patches down, and squeezes, scoops, and slathers on the burn cream with her free hand. Patches wears a plastic cone around her head so she can’t lick her wounds or the bacteria-fighting cream. Every 72 hours, Frommer gives Patches an appetite stimulant, and occasionally soaks her paws in cold water to wipe off debris and make sure they stay clean. 

After a week with her foster, Patches began to walk without making painful noises. A little over two weeks later, her paw pads were pink and healthy, the scabs gone. Patches still has some severe burns in-between her toes, which Frommer applies burn cream to twice a day. Patches doesn’t need any more pain meds or appetite stimulants, and has ventured out into the apartment to explore. She even jumps on the couch. 


It is typically low-income and uninsured families, like Patches’, who face the difficult decision of leaving their pets behind in a ruined building or surrendering them to animal control. Since these families are often at risk of homelessness following a residential fire, their pets are vulnerable to death, becoming homeless themselves as strays, or being relinquished to the already over-burdened shelter system. There are local relief organizations in Philadelphia and other cities offering temporary housing assistance for displaced people, but none include accommodations for pets, aside from Red Paw. Red Paw partners not only with local veterinarians, but also social services agencies, private animal-related businesses, and national and local animal rescues and welfare agencies in order to best help owners and animals. 

Every city needs a Red Paw to fill, as Sam Phillips, Director of the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management says, “a much-needed gap in disaster services.” 


Burwell calls Red Paw every day to check on Patches. Sometimes, Frake says, “it seems like we care more for these pets than the family does, with all of the complexities that go into tending to animals. In this case, I truly know that Patches is loved and missed. It will be a good day when the family is reunited.” 

Frommer agrees. “The nice thing about fostering with Red Paw is these animals have a family, a home, someone who’s missing them. You get email updates like ‘Patches mom is missing her!’ It’s very rewarding.” 

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At the end of October, Red Paw returned Patches to her family. She is living with Burwell’s sister until Burwell gets back on her feet. 

“I’m so grateful for Red Paw,” says Burwell. “I felt safe when they walked away with Patches. You can just feel that they care. They really, truly care for animals.”

Red Paw runs solely on donations, both monetary and in-kind (see their wish list). You can follow Red Paw on Facebook and Twitter, and check out their site to learn more about how you can help injured and displaced animals.

Images: Red Paw Emergency Relief Team

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