Public and Animal Health Consequences of Disasters

Even as the California fires were beginning to rage out of control, Sebastian Heath, VetMB, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, Dipl. ACVPM, senior staff veterinarian for USDA-APHIS, Emergency Programs, was discussing the consequences of animals in disaster situations to an audience at the University of Kentucky.

Rural hazards range from natural disasters to epidemics (such as the foot and mouth disease that hit the United Kingdom). He said livestock, horse, and allied industries are the most likely to suffer in a disaster located in a rural setting. This will have national effects since agriculture supports one in eight jobs in the United States.

While there hasn't been a tremendous amount of study done on this topic, what has been done points out that animals have a direct influence on whether people evacuate from emergency situations and subsequent threats to human lives because of that failure to evacuate.

"Pet ownership explains much of the human evacuation failure in disasters," said Heath. "Pets may be a risk factor for approximately 300,000 cases of human evacuation failure each year. Evacuation rates could improve by 30% if we helped people evacuate pets."

He said about 60% of U.S. households own pets (which includes horses). While pet-owning households with children are more likely to evacuate than pet-owning households without children, it was found that many times it was the families with children who subsequently would re-enter disaster areas to try and recover pets.

Therefore, one of the most prominent facts to communicate in a disaster situation is that if an area isn't safe for humans, it isn't safe for animals. He also emphasized that all evacuations are local, and therefore local emergency personnel need to be prepared to help pet and horse owners get animals out. He said this could include neighborhood care groups for high-risk populations (such as the elderly or horse owners without trailers), distribution of cages and leashes when evacuations are ordered, socialization training for dogs (more than than 80% of evacuees seek shelter with friends and family, and only about 15% go to community shelters), and transportation experience and cages for cats (any time you cage a cat to take him to the vet, it's like an evacuation drill, said Heath).

He noted that pet admission policies to community shelters are locally driven. However, he stressed that pets/livestock need to be sheltered away from the general human population for safety and sanitation reasons.

Heath stressed that proper identification of loose/abandoned pets and horses made it much easier to re-unite them with owners. He said an animal with no collar/ID was 10 times less likely to be re-united with its owners than one with identification attached.

Heath stated that people are responsible for their pets and horses, not emergency management personnel. Therefore, it is up to pet and livestock owners to have plans in place to evacuate animals or care for them in case of emergency.

For More Information:

Dr. Sebastian Heath's web site:

Sellnow, Les. Terrorism Targets. The Horse, September 2003, article #4602.

Herbert, Kimberly. Disaster Planning. The Horse, June 1999, article #341.

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About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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