In times of natural disaster, people’s safety and well-being are naturally put first. The same, though, can’t always be said for pets, which are also victims in such calamities.

But thanks to Ryunosuke Tokuda, a veterinarian who runs an animal hospital in the city of Kumamoto, that wasn’t the case when a series of earthquakes rocked the prefecture in April last year.

Instead, pets — and their owners — found shelter at Ryunosuke Animal Hospital when other evacuation shelters turned animals away and forced many people to keep their pets outside or with them in their cars.

Tokuda said the Kumamoto quakes made the central and local governments realize they needed to prepare evacuation shelters capable of accommodating pets and owners together.

“The Kumamoto earthquake was a good chance to rethink the vulnerability of animals,” said Tokuda during a recent interview with The Japan Times.

“Before that, even the media didn’t pay attention to animals” when reporting on disasters, he said.

Soon after the first quake on April 14, the hospital posted messages on social media offering to house people and their pets.

Tokuda appeared in various news reports and was even featured on the TBS documentary program “Jonetsu Tairiku — Passionate People” where he stressed the need for evacuation facilities that can accommodate animals.

Tokuda had been working on allowing pets at disaster-hit regions since a mega-quake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region in March 2011.

Visiting the area less than a week after the quake struck, he realized there was a need for a shelter where pets and owners could evacuate together. Back then, pets weren’t allowed in most evacuation shelters.

Learning from those lessons, Tokuda expanded the hospital building in 2013 and added stocks of food, water and a power generator to accommodate a larger number of evacuees.

Three years later, the preparations proved worthwhile.

Soon after the quake, more than 200 people evacuated to the hospital, and a day after the 7.3-magnitude main shock rocked Kumamoto and its vicinity on April 16, 223 pets were hospitalized, mostly due to dehydration.

A total of more than 1,000 pet owners and 2,000 animals used the hospital as a shelter during that time.

Yoriko Egawa of Kumamoto Prefecture’s health and social welfare bureau said that pets were now allowed to stay inside temporary housing in most cases.

But Tokuda claimed that dogs, including some that are trained as watchdogs, are kept at their owners’ homes away from temporary housing.

Accommodating pets during disasters is not the only problem Tokuda is working on.

The veterinarian is also worried about how the disaster has affected those pets.

There are still a number of pets that are lost or have been deliberately abandoned. And a number of these are still waiting for their owners at Tokuda’s hospital.

Up until last October, when all shelters closed down, 861 dogs and 1,163 cats were under the care of the prefecture.

The prefecture still looks after 37 dogs and 18 cats on behalf of their owners, while those who are with their owners often lack sufficient care.

Tokuda, who recently visited the town of Mashiki — the most damaged area in the prefecture — to examine pets there, said that most dogs weren’t being properly taken care of.

“They seem calm, but their hair is not trimmed and their nails are uncut,” he said.

However, Tokuda said that overall the mental condition of the pets seemed to be improving.

“Until six months after the earthquake, they suffered from stress for having to adapt to the situation, and some died from shock,” he said.

“Now, they are calm.”

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