Preparing an equine practice for a natural disaster

Preparing an equine practice for a natural disaster

Experts from 3 states outline key steps; all agree it begins with a written plan
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Dec 01, 2008

A spate of natural disasters — hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and earthquakes — have impacted veterinary practices in many parts of the country this year and in the past few years.

Practitioners are getting better at dealing with them, as seen most recently after Hurricane Ike struck the Texas coast, but many more could benefit from the experience of those who have gone through a disaster and its aftermath.

"It seems we've never had to deal with such a magnitude of disasters," says Bill Moyer, DVM, head of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences. Moyer also is the newly appointed vice president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP).

Caring for horses and other large animals after a disaster can be particularly challenging, but in some ways equine practitioners inherently may be better prepared at providing leadership and assistance in such situations, Moyer believes.

Why? "The reason is that most of us have had to work under incredibly varied circumstances — for example, no roof, tied to a fence post, catch the animal, all sorts of weather (mud, snow, wind, rain), in the dark, and so on, whereas small-animal practitioners have most of the amenities. Small-animal practitioners — not all, but most — are not comfortable around animals larger than a (Great) Dane. But large-animal folks can handle or figure out how to handle most anything," Moyer says.

Still, equine practitioners can learn much about disaster preparation from those with experience. Here are suggestions from sources in three states on disaster-proofing an equine practice, although much of the advice also applies to all veterinarians:

Safety begins at home

"My first message is always that you have to (first) be prepared yourself," says Terry Paik, DVM, Veterinary Disaster Response Coordinator for San Diego County, Calif., an area that has dealt with wildfires.

"A lot of veterinarians want to help during disasters, but if you're worried about your family you really can't help anyone else," Paik says. The veterinarian should have a communication and evacuation plan at home, so that his or her family is safe. "Then they need to prepare the practice.

"The first step for the owner is to determine what the likely emergency or event he or she is likely to encounter — whatever might be the greatest threat potential in your area," Paik says, adding that every type of disaster contingency has its own specific needs.

Two essential keys, Paik says, are evacuation and communication.

"In case of evacuation, determine where you will meet with staff; know the location of gas, water and electrical shut-offs; have a list of items to take with you, such as critical documents and papers; and get some CPR training.

"Have trailers, vans and towing vehicles full of gas and ready to move," Paik adds.

As for communication, prepare an emergency contact list of key people and phone numbers. The evacuation plan not only may require transport and movement of horse patients, but also "where people are going to go, where to meet, how to communicate with each other and with clients," says Paik.

After developing a plan, "practice your plan and train, train, train," Paik says.

The plan should include a call-in/alert staff roster, and stocking extra supplies for emergency use only.

"Our local association in San Diego has two goals," Paik says. "One is to educate member veterinarians how to respond during a disaster, and the second is to educate clients. If everyone had a plan and evacuated (properly), they wouldn't need us."

Depending on location, some practices should have separate plans for various types of disasters, Paik says.

After the post-Katrina failures, Congress passed the PETS (Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards) Act to provide emergency transportation for animals.