How will you protect animals under your care during a natural disaster?

Your patient’s well-being is your responsibility, even during a natural disaster

How likely would it be for pets in your hospital and kennel to survive a natural disaster like a flash flood, tornado, or earthquake?

Let’s focus on a single pet that is a representative of scores of other pets who might be in your hospital when a disaster strikes. Let’s say he’s a 7-year-old Yorkie who’s there for intravenous treatment for recurring pancreatitis. We’ll call him Ringo, and that he’s responding well to treatment. In fact, he’s scheduled for discharge first thing tomorrow morning.

So far, your day has been typical and busy, as usual. You can’t remember the last time you were home in time to see the local weather forecast. So that warm strong breeze from the southwest didn’t get your attention. The next instant you hear sirens screaming to alert the community that a tornado warning was just issued by the National Weather Service.

In that moment when a natural disaster strikes, what do you wish you’d done in advance to protect Ringo as best you could?

Here are a few thoughts to consider.

Send Pets Home if You Have Advanced Warning

At least those pets will be dispersed, which eliminates the potential tragedy of multiple injuries in one location.

In most cases, pet parents will experience less anxiety by having their pet with them during a natural disaster. And, if you’ve educated them on taking care of pets in such events, anxiety will be reduced even further.

Obviously, not all natural disasters are predictable. However, those of us who live in the southeast remember April 27, 2010 when tornadoes tore through several states almost all day long. In that instance, weather forecasters warned of unusually ominous conditions several days in advance.

Require Identification For Each Pet

The clear winner here is microchipping. Remind clients who resist microchipping of this added value they likely would not otherwise think about.

Even if there is minimal damage to your building, and no pets suffer injuries, there’s increased potential for frightened animals to escape during an evacuation process.

ID collars are essential, but there’s no substitute for permanent identification.

Construct or Reinforce Kennel Areas for Added Protection

Your kennel area does not need to qualify as a storm shelter. However, the exterior walls of the kennel should consist of materials that can withstand high winds and flying debris.

Adequate drainage systems could reduce the danger from rapidly rising waters in case of flooding.

The type of natural disaster most common in your area should guide your planning for safe building construction.

Install Safe Electrical Outlets

Damage to an electrical system can create the danger of electrocution.

About 200 people in the U.S. alone die of ground faults each year. The stats for pets may be even higher.

Modern building codes require the installation of ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets. However, someone should be assigned to periodical maintenance inspections and tests to ensure they’re all working. Replacement of the outlets is necessary from time-to-time.

Maintain a Written Evacuation Plan and Document Training

There is no substitute for keeping this strategy in place and fresh on everyone’s mind. Within the next few months someone reading this article will learn, first-hand, the value of a functional evacuation plan.

We became veterinarians because of a desire to save and enrich the lives of animals. There will be times for many when advanced planning for a natural disaster becomes as important as an anesthetic crash cart. That’s enough motivation to inspire practice leaders to take advanced action.

However, take a look at this AVMA report, “Top 10 OSHA Violations.It places “Fire and Emergency Plans” and “Employee Training Documentation” at No. 3 and No. 4, respectively.

As a former veterinary practice owner and leader of a corporate practice, I understand the difficulty of repeatedly taking time to fulfill this obligation. The best action I ever took to meet the challenge was delegating the task to a staff member. One who was interested in, and capable of keeping us in compliance.

Be Familiar With Local and National Support Services

Realizing that expert help is available when a natural disaster strikes can generate some soothing peace of mind. And there are plenty of resources at your disposal.

Here’s a list of resources and contact information to get you started.

  •  FEMA Disaster Assistance, 800-621-FEMA (3362)
  • The AVMA’s Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMAT). These teams serve as first responders to ensure high-quality care of animals during disasters and emergencies.
  • Develop personal relationships with local first responders.
  • PETS Act of 2006 legislation providing for the care of animals involved in a natural disaster. Good information is available here and here.

Prepare Ways to Continue Serving Clients After a Natural Disaster Event

  • Keep a freestanding electric generator on hand. It could become the only way to resume work for extended periods of power outage. And, it may prevent the loss of large amounts of perishable pharmaceuticals and vaccines.
  • Purchase a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Even an inexpensive used one may get you safely to your hospital in a snowstorm. Besides, you can enjoy some recreation with it just to ensure the engine stays ready to crank.
  •  Develop a “buddy system” with local practices. You’ll have a quick and convenient source of essential items until you’re ready to return to normal operations.

When faced with difficult medical issues, practicing veterinarians often use a phrase like, “Ms. Client, you’ve done all you can do for your beloved pet.” We say those words to help them find some peace of mind in the midst of trying times.

By making preparations before a disaster occurs, we can say to ourselves, “Practice leader, you did all you could do to save lives.”

What do you think? How have you prepared for a natural disaster? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Many of your colleagues could benefit from what you’ve learned about protecting pets in your hospital when faced with a natural disaster.

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