Preparing for an emergency

dvm360dvm360 June 2024
Volume 55
Issue 6
Pages: 42

Advance planning can help protect animals, the veterinary team and a practice’s property during a disaster

Natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, landslides, wildfires, and earthquakes as well as manmade disasters and crises can affect veterinary hospitals, patients, and clients. It is imperative that veterinary hospitals and shelters be well prepared for a potential emergency situation so we do not end up scrambling to come up with a strategy during a crisis. We might not need to build a bunker under the veterinary hospital parking lot and stock it with canned food, but there are plenty of other things we can do to get ahead of a disaster situation. Let’s start planning now.

Create an emergency plan

Having a written emergency plan and a standard operating procedure (SOP) for disasters is of vital importance for veterinary hospitals and shelters. This plan should be reviewed and updated every year. All staff and volunteers must be aware of both the plan and any associated SOPs to ensure everyone knows their roles. When a disaster happens, local veterinary hospitals and shelters will potentially be barraged by anxious pet owners looking for advice and help, so having a plan in place, or knowing who to direct people to for assistance, is of utmost importance.

Many municipalities and counties have their own disaster plans for those geographical areas and have designated certain animal shelters and veterinary hospitals to take in pets that owners cannot bring to hotels or shelters if they have been forced to evacuate. Veterinary hospitals and shelters should touch base with their local authorities once a year when reviewing their emergency and disaster SOPs to keep up with any changes and protocols.

Local emergency management systems may also have training opportunities available for veterinary and shelter staff. Also, take the time to review the preparedness guides that are available through the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Humane Society of the US (HSUS), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and many other online resources. For example, there is a free course available by enrolling in the ASPCA’s Disaster Response Program that could be extremely helpful for your staff and volunteers.

Know where to access shelter

Depending on where your veterinary hospital or shelter is located, the type of natural or manmade disaster that has occurred will help you recognize if you are able to shelter in place or if you will need to arrange to transport pets to shelters outside the area. Building a volunteer foster network that includes individuals who have a safe place and resources to help look after pets when shelters become full is also something to consider. Connecting with local service agencies to identify the most at-risk owners who will require assistance can help guide your staff and volunteers to check on these people when disaster strikes.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there were very few places with laws or protocols in place regarding pets during a disaster, and when evacuations became necessary, some people refused to leave without their pets and may have died because of it, or pets had to be left behind to perish. After Katrina, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act was passed by Congress and enacted into lay in 2006.1 While on the surface the PETS Act is for helping animals, it is important to remember that the act was passed to save human lives.

Local and state emergency preparedness authorities are now required by the PETS Act to include pets and service animals in their evacuation plans.1 These plans must be submitted by local and state authorities to qualify for grants from FEMA. Despite this, many towns still do not have plans in place for animals, so veterinary hospitals and shelters that are putting together disaster preparedness plans for themselves should reach out to the local authorities to learn if they have anything in place.

Financial impact

Being prepared with plans in place to help shelter animals, checking on vulnerable clients with pets, having extra food and water on hand, and installing a generator on your property is all well and good. However, there are some legal and financial issues to consider.

Consider these questions: Is your veterinary hospital able to afford to offer free veterinary services to many animals for several weeks straight? As veterinary hospitals and shelters, we cannot expect to receive local or federal aid to assist us. What about your staff members who are helping with these disaster-affected pets? Are they getting paid for their time, or is this considered volunteer work?

These are questions and dilemmas that need to be worked out and answered ahead of time. Another thing to consider is your state’s Good Samaritan laws because finding out if your assistive actions during a disaster are covered is really important.

Gathering needed resources

In addition to a generator, veterinary hospitals and shelters should have on hand supplies such as tarps, rope, leashes, cat carriers, masks, muzzles, disposable isolation gowns, duct tape, orange cones and flags, disposable gloves, flashlights, a digital camera, and a wet-dry vacuum.

Having an effective method in place to document and keep track of animals being seen and treated, as well as having a designated disaster team on staff who have attended training classes for disaster preparedness, are key. Another thing to consider ahead of time is training your staff on how to triage mass casualties in case it becomes necessary.

Other important preparations include having emergency numbers readily available, keeping communication lines open to other veterinary hospitals and shelters in your area, and maintaining contact with local emergency authorities. Your staff disaster team should make themselves familiar with the many plans and resources available on local government websites.

Providing education

How do we make sure clients and pets are prepared? In a world that is increasingly unpredictable, where natural and manmade disasters can strike with little to no warning, being prepared is more than just a motto for Scouts—it is a critical aspect of pet ownership that can be the difference between chaos and calm. Through the lens of veterinary science, and with a slight tilt toward the unconventional, we in the veterinary field should be advising our clients to envision their pets not just as pets, but as 4-legged prepper partners, and to imagine a scenario where their pets are just as ready for emergency situations as the most seasoned survivalist is.

It is vital to understand the unique capabilities and needs of pets in emergency situations. Animals have heightened senses and can often sense danger long before humans can. This primal instinct can be an advantage in prepping for disasters, but only if owners are tuned in to pets’ behaviors and cues.

As veterinary professionals, we emphasize the importance of keeping pets physically healthy and mentally sharp as part of disaster preparedness. Regular checkups, vaccinations, and flea and tick prevention are basics that cannot be overlooked. Physical fitness ensures dogs can handle stress and physically demanding situations, while mental training, such as obedience and agility exercises, can improve their responsiveness.

Not to overlook our feline friends, getting cats used to calmly going in their carriers and making sure they are accustomed to car rides can be important not only for regular trips to their veterinarian, but these are vital skills for an emergency situation.

Ensuring that clients get all their pets microchipped is a no-brainer, as becoming separated is certainly something that can happen during a disaster. The peace of mind from knowing a pet can be tracked down via this method is priceless. It is also important for clients to have updated pictures of their pets on hand.

It is also essential to advise clients on how to assemble a go-bag for their pet. This kit should include items like food, medications (including those for anxiety and motion sickness), medical records, leashes, harnesses, ID tags, veterinarian’s contact information, proof of vaccination, fresh water, litter and litter pans, pet carriers, blankets, towels, dish soap, disinfectant wipes, first aid supplies, comfort items, toys, and housetraining pads. There are many more in-depth and comprehensive lists on the ASPCA, HSUS, FEMA, and local emergency group websites that you can steer clients toward.


Recommend that your clients train their pets for emergency scenarios that go beyond the basic sit-and-stay command. Evacuation drills that familiarize their pet with rapid departure processes and getting them accustomed to their go-bag items, particularly carriers or tents, is key. The goal is to eliminate any hesitancy or fear associated with sudden movements or the appearance of survival gear.

Remind your clients that post disaster, their pet’s well-being should be a priority. Stress and exposure can take a toll on their health. Monitoring for signs of distress, unusual behavior, or health issues following an event is imperative. Also advise clients of the potential for waterborne diseases and exposure to toxins following a disaster. It is important to immediately consult a veterinarian if any health concerns arise.

Including your pet in your emergency preparedness plan doesn’t just add a layer of responsibility—knowing that your whole family, furry members included, is ready to face whatever disasters may come their way adds a layer of security and comfort. When disaster strikes, being prepared may save both pets and their humans.


  1. Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006, HR 3858, 109th Cong (2006). Accessed May 14, 2024. https://www.

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