Veterinarians are uniquely positioned to help their clients and communities when natural disasters strike. Is your practice ready?
As Hurricane Irma menaced South Florida in September 2017, Christina Wood’s thoughts turned to her dog, Loki. The 9-year-old mixed breed was so sensitive to loud noises that he would cower under the couch during thunderstorms. How, she wondered, would Loki react to hours of deafening wind and rain? “I was afraid it was going to be a rough ride,” recalled Wood, a freelance writer based in Delray Beach. “I had given Loki Xanax for the first time on July 4. He was still frightened, but it did help, so I was hoping it might help him through the hurricane as well.”
Wood reached out to her veterinarian, who answered Wood’s questions about dosing and worked with her to figure out a medication schedule that would keep Loki calm. “As the storm approached, I was taking Loki outside to do his business as often as I could,” Wood said. “I was afraid that once things really started getting rough, he wouldn’t want to go outside, but the medicine was so effective that the rough weather didn’t bother him at all. He was running around in the yard, and I was the one anxiously clinging to the doorframe.”
But there was more: Wood’s 17-year-old domestic shorthair cat, Tut, was on prescription medications for a thyroid condition. That, too, was a concern. “My veterinarian was really good about making sure I had an adequate supply of all prescriptions,” Wood said. “But I think the most important thing my veterinary office gave me was confidence and peace of mind in the face of a pending natural disaster. I was very glad I called.”
Hurricane Irma was just one of several extreme weather events to hit the United States in 2017, a cycle that also included devastating wildfires, tornadoes, floods, ice storms, and more. During such times of need, veterinarians have a unique opportunity to assist both their clients and their communities, experts say. It takes forethought, planning, and dedication, but the end result— happy clients and healthy patients—makes it worth the effort.
Types Of Natural Disasters
Natural disasters occur throughout the United States, but some events are more common to specific regions. The South and Northeast, for example, face a greater risk from hurricanes, while western states such as California traditionally see more wildfires and mudslides. In the Midwest, the greatest concerns are tornadoes and winter blizzards, with the latter also affecting the New England states. And flooding can occur almost anywhere.
Veterinary student Rose Worobec calms a stressed patient.
Each type of natural disaster presents a unique threat to pets and their owners, noted John Haven, CPA, executive director of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville and head of the college’s Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service (VETS), which deploys throughout Florida when- ever a natural disaster occurs.
Hurricanes and tornadoes can result in blunt-force trauma and lacerations from flying debris, drowning and contamination issues from flooding, encounters with panicked wildlife fleeing the storm, and disease from insects that flourish in the aftermath. Wildfires can result in burns and smoke inhalation, and blizzards and ice storms can cause frostbite and hypothermia.
Before the Event
Tornadoes and earthquakes occur with little to no warning, but hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and blizzards usually offer residents time to prepare. Grant Miller, DVM, director of regulatory affairs for the California Veterinary Medical Association and state coordinator for the California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps, encourages veterinarians to become familiar with the disaster plan for their city or county before a disaster strikes.
“Many municipalities have written plans that are available to the public, and some even have annexes specific to animals,” Dr. Miller noted. “The plans often address evacuation and transportation procedures and name animal-specific shelter locations. Veterinarians should share this information with clients because this type of information helps guide people during critical times in disasters.”
When veterinarians talk with clients about disaster planning, Dr. Miller advised that they take an “all hazards” approach. “This means that no matter what type of disaster occurs, animal owners have anticipated their needs and created a plan of action to respond,” he explained. “Of course, if a certain type of disaster is more likely than others to occur in a geographic area, such as a hurricane being more likely than an earthquake, those types of disasters should be considered first.”
Beyond distributing the local animal disaster plan to clients, veterinarians should discuss some of the anticipated needs for their clients’ pets, such as a provision for food, water, and medications; identification for the animal and proof of ownership; and a crate or carrier. “Setting these aside ahead of time in a convenient, single, ‘grab and go’ location may make the difference between life and death for their animal,” Dr. Miller said. “Having enough supplies for at least 72 hours is a solid start, but the more an owner can do to prepare, the better.”
Veterinarians can spread the word by making disaster prepared- ness a frequent topic in office newsletters and on practice websites. These platforms are the perfect place to promote links to reputable sites that offer additional preparedness information and advice, such as the Red Cross, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
During the Event
It’s vital that veterinary practices have a disaster plan in place and that staff members know what their responsibilities are when an event occurs, Lorna Lanman, DVM, a member of the Texas- based Veterinary Emergency & Critical Care Foundation, said. “A written disaster plan is very important,” she explained. “Once we have taken care of ourselves, we can help our clients prepare for their own issues.”
California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps examine a burned cat.
The services a practice can offer during a natural disaster are predicated on the type of disaster and how it will affect the practice itself. A practice in the path of a Category 4 hurricane, a rapidly moving wildfire, or a raging flood isn’t in a position to assist anyone—their thoughts are only of self-preservation. But practices that will be lightly or not at all affected can assist in many ways.
One of the most appreciated services is boarding animals for clients facing relocation. The PETS Act, enacted following Hurricane Katrina, ensures that state and local emergency preparedness operational plans address the needs of individuals with house- hold pets and service animals following a major disaster or emergency. However, owners with older animals or pets with chronic illnesses may feel better if their veterinarian can provide temporary boarding. Clinics in a safe zone may also assist colleagues whose practices are in danger by taking some or all of the endangered practice’s boarded patients.
“If a veterinarian is faced with the responsibility of having to shelter animals during a disaster, the veterinarian should keep up periodic contact with animal authorities to inform them of any stray animals being sheltered,” Dr. Miller advised. “Veterinarians should document and photograph stray animals being sheltered, since there is a very good chance that they are a beloved pet and that someone is desperately searching for them.”
Another suggested service is a hotline that concerned pet owners can call if they have questions or concerns about their pet’s health during a natural disaster. This kind of access can give clients tremendous peace of mind, as demonstrated by Wood’s experience with the approach of Hurricane Irma.
Veterinarians can expect animals to come in for several weeks following a natural disaster. “The nature of the illnesses and injuries varies widely depending on the type of disaster that has occurred,” Dr. Miller observed. “Generally, dehydration, GI issues, eye and skin injuries, malnutrition, and stress-related illness are common. In the wake of disasters, veterinarians often must contend with patients being off medications that they otherwise would have received. For instance, animals with diabetes or epilepsy may not be medicated adequately due to not receiving medications on their regular schedule.”
With this in mind, veterinarians seeing patients after a disaster must ensure that their staff is ready to handle the anticipated uptick in cases, that the clinic is adequately supplied, and that electricity, water, and other vital utilities are unaffected.
Veterinarians should also be prepared to deal with the emotional issues that occur commonly in the aftermath of a natural disaster. “You’re dealing with a lot of stress-out people,” Haven said. “They have no power, no water, perhaps no home, so they are on their last nerve when they come to see you. And your staff may also be stressed because of issues going on in their own homes post disaster.” In addition, animals may exhibit signs of stress because their routine has been severely disrupted.
“Addressing fatigue is a huge part of managing stress,” Dr. Lanman noted. “We go and go and forget to take care of ourselves. Then the exhaustion sets in, and stress really hits us hard.” Self-care includes getting plenty of rest and not taking on more than the practice can handle safely, Dr. Lanman said.
A final consideration is what to charge for services in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Clients may be facing financial calamity because of the cost of recovery and/or long-term unemployment, which can make it difficult for them to pay for services. But at the same time, no practice can afford to provide services pro bono for an extended period.
“Practitioners have to decide where they are going to draw the line and how they will do that,” Haven said. “Perhaps they could charge a minimum fee to help offset expenses. This is something they must consider and determine before a disaster hits.”
A stray animal is evaluated
following Hurricane Irma.
Haven added that it’s sometimes possible for practices to enter into an agreement with their county under the PETS Act to provide care following a disaster and later seek reimbursement from the county and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. However, such arrangements must be made in advance. Reimbursement for pro bono or reduced-fee care may also be obtained through grants provided by the American Veterinary Medical Foundation and some state veterinary medical associations.
Emergency and disaster preparedness should be an ongoing discussion with staff so that everyone understands what to do and where to go should a disaster strike. Make sure new hires are made aware of the plan as soon as possible after they begin employment.
Don Vaughan is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. His work has appeared in Military Officer, Boys’ Life, Writer’s Digest, MAD, and other publications.