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What About Sparky? Incorporating Animals into Disaster Preparedness

Author: Captain Charlotte Spires, DVM, MPH, DACVPM, Executive Director, National Advisory Committees for ASPR
Published Date: 6/20/2017 3:27:00 PM
Category: Public Health Preparedness; Response & Recovery;

As an emergency responder, what would you do if you suddenly had to care for 6,000 animals after a disaster? That was one of the biggest questions that I faced during Hurricane Katrina. In the wake of the storm, thousands of pets ended up at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Louisiana. The link between disaster veterinary health and the disaster human health became obvious really quickly. Evacuees and their pets both needed disaster health support.

Over half (68%) of all households in the U.S. have a pet, according to the American Pet Products Association. Even though so many Americans are proud pet owners, animal preparedness is an area of disaster planning that is not often discussed. Emergency management, health professionals, and first responders likely will encounter animals at some point before, during, or after an emergency.

Pet preparedness is critical to national health security. The human-animal bond can be very strong; in fact, many people choose not to evacuate before a disaster because they do not want to leave their pets behind. Most owners consider their pets to be a part of their family, and having that family member lost or hurt because of a disaster can have a significant impact on the health of the other members of the family.

Capt. Spires standing with lady and a goat Capt. Spires with a man and a dog during Ike response

As a U.S. Public Health Service Veterinary Medical Officer, I’ve been involved with animal rescue deployments for Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike, and I’ve seen first-hand how important incorporating pets and pet owners is in disaster planning.

For people who are socially isolated, like the elderly, disadvantaged, and medically dependent, the loss of the pet bond because of a disaster can have a huge impact on physical and mental health. Many of the vulnerable people that come to an emergency shelter—individuals that either don’t have anywhere to go, or any family to assist them, or a way of transporting themselves— are also pet owners.

While deployed to a federal medical station after Hurricane Ike to help manage the animals of disabled people who presented to that center, we found that of the 300 people at the shelter, about one in ten evacuated with their pet, so we had around 30 pets to manage. We had to come up with a modality for every pet-owner relationship with the goal of maintaining the human-animal bond.

Managing Animals in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

It took a disaster of significant scale – Hurricane Katrina – to help first responders, emergency management, and health professionals in the region recognize the importance of focusing on animals as well as people. With the progress made since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the state of Louisiana now is considered a gold standard when it comes to incorporating animals and pets into preparedness and disaster planning.

During my deployment, we faced with every type of challenge you could imagine in dealing with pets and animals that were affected because of the storm.

As the main animal shelter for the Katrina-affected area, the Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Louisiana quickly became the largest animal shelter in the world. We had over 6,000 animals in the facility; about 70 percent of those animals were dogs, another 24 percent were cats, and 6 percent were other animals like snakes, birds, fish, horses, sheep, and even wild animals such as possums and skunks.

We made sure we had a system in place for managing such a large number of diverse animals and that they received the best care possible. Our team built a comprehensive database that included all information available for each emergency shelter animal, including rescue location and photos. That way, we could help people reconnect with their animals as part of recovery operations even though animals were placed in shelters across the region and even nationwide.

Want a Smoother Disaster Response? Plan for People and their Pets

While disaster shelters are required by legal mandate to properly take into account accommodations for service animals, many still do not have well-established plans for other pets and their owners. I see a few areas of opportunity for health professionals and first responders regarding pet preparedness.

The first is recognizing the importance of the human-animal bond, especially among vulnerable populations, and ensuring that these particular pet owners are fully considered and factored into the planning process.

Disaster management plans are typically not set up for people who are evacuated with pets, especially disabled people and those with vulnerabilities. Many of these owners can’t care for their own animals when they arrive at a shelter, which is what most plans currently require. Or if the shelter can’t host animals, it requires the owners to transport their pets to separate animal shelters, which can be located quite far from the shelter where the owner is staying. For many of these pet owners, that’s just not possible.

Additionally, it’s important for emergency responders and preparedness professionals to be understand how to manage for pets during and after a disaster. While a shelter that lets everyone’s pets come in with them in the wake of a disaster may be well-meaning, you really can’t just put people and animals together without a strategic plan focused on protecting both the health of the humans and the health of the animals at the same time. This introduces many risks such as animal aggression issues, allergy issues, spread of bacteria, and food contamination.

Disaster planning for animals is important and it must be done, but it must be done right. Looking for a way to get started? Check out best practices and planning considerations from ASPR TRACIE to learn more about animal care in shelters and other disaster veterinary issues. Consider working with your local Medical Reserve Corps unit to see if they can help manage pets and other animals during response operations.

For more information on personal pet preparedness, visit www.ready.gov/animals. To learn more about national health security, visit www.phe.gov/nhss.


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