SENDAI, Japan (AFP) – Hungry, hurt and separated from owners who are either dead or in evacuation centres, hundreds of family pets are struggling to survive in the desolation of Japan's tsunami-ravaged northeast coast.

Among the many rescue teams sent from around the world to search for survivors and bodies after Japan's worst natural disaster for nearly a century, a handful of specialised animal rescue groups have also been at work.

In the days immediately after the March 11 tsunami that wiped out dozens of thriving coastal towns, the prospects looked grim.

"In the hardest hit areas, we saw no animal life whatsoever," said Ashley Fruno, from animal rights group PETA.

"We did see some paw prints in the mud at one point, but they didn't lead anywhere, and we could not find any animals nearby."

Slowly but surely, however, abandoned pets began to emerge, often from damaged homes where they had managed to ride out the destructive force of the tsunami.

Many pet owners left their cats and dogs when the tsunami warning sounded, never imagining that the wave would be as large and powerful as it eventually was.

The animals were left to fend for themselves in a hostile environment with no food or fresh water.

Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support (JEARS), a hastily assembled coalition of animal welfare groups, has spent the last two weeks searching what's left of the worst-hit coastal towns.

The teams, which include several volunteer vets, provide food and treatment for injured animals and try to find temporary shelters for those that have lost their owners.

They also visit evacuation centres where those people who escaped the tsunami with their pets are having trouble holding on to them in difficult, cramped surroundings where animals are not always welcome.

"There have been some problems in the centres, with tensions between those with pets and those without," said vet Kazumasu Sasaki.

"Some people have pet allergies, and they complain that the dogs are barking and fighting. It's understandable."

There have been cases of people choosing to stay in their ruined houses because shelters refused to accommodate pets, and JEARS coordinator Isabella Gallaon-Aoki said it was difficult to persuade those in the centres that their animals would be better off in a temporary shelter.

"People here see pets as family members. For some, after everything that has happened, their pet is the only thing they can cling on to -- the only thing that brings them comfort," she said.

Timo Takazawa, who survived the tsunami along with her husband, refused to give up their dog, Momo, despite complaints from other evacuees in their crowded shelter in the city of Sendai.

"When we escaped from the tsunami we didn't take anything, just Momo," said Takazawa, 65.

"I can't imagine not being here together. If anybody said to me I couldn't keep Momo here, we would leave with her, we would go somewhere else."

Animals have featured in a number of unusual tsunami survival stories, most notably a porpoise rescued from a rice field after it was washed two kilometres (1.2 miles) inland.

Then there was the case of Tashirojima island in Miyagi Prefecture, known locally as "Cat Island" for its feral feline population that vastly outnumbers the 100 or so human residents.

The tiny island was engulfed by the tsunami -- but a rescue team that flew in by helicopter reported that both cats and people had come out unscathed.

In Sendai, tsunami warden Mr Kamata tried to return for his dog -- a large pedigree Akita -- after warning neighbours about the incoming wave, but found his way blocked by the churning water.

"I thought there was no way he could have survived. It was terribly sad," Kamata said.

But later that night, as he sheltered in a refuge with hundreds of other residents, Kamata heard that a dog had been found outside.

"It was him. He'd swum and found me. He'd ingested a lot of sea water and kept throwing up and I thought I was going to lose him anyway, but he pulled through," Kamata said.

Heartwarming stories of survival aside, PETA's Fruno said that animal welfare groups would be busy in tsunami-affected areas for some time to come.

"Recovery from this disaster is going to take months, if not years," she said.

"People in the hardest hit areas will continue to need pet food and veterinary supplies, as will the animal shelters, which will also need to house animals until their homeless guardians are able to find somewhere to live."