Preparing For The Worst

Awareness of any major disasters requires practice to properly prepare for the unexpected.

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Chemical spills, electrical fires and even terroists can force a practice to pause.

First responders make up only about 2 percent of the U.S. population, so  the other 98 percent would be wise to prepare for a natural disaster or other emergency situation.

Complacency and a natural aversion to thinking about potential disasters means veterinarians, like many people, put off making a plan to protect their homes, practices and patients. 

“Too often veterinarians don’t think about a disaster until it’s on top of them,” says Roberta Dwyer, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVPM, professor at the University of Kentucky and a spokeswoman for the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
“Less than 3 percent of veterinarians have a business plan, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.”

Recent news events, including the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the tornadoes in the South and Texas wildfires, underscore the imprtance of disaster preparation.

Making an emergency plan enables veterinarians and their staff to coherently and effectively act during an emergency. Heather Case, DVM, MPH, Dipl. ACVPM, AVMA, VMAT, says preparing for an emergency doesn’t have to be a negative experience.
“I focus on the peace of mind a veterinarian and staff have once they have a plan and know how to execute it,” Dr. Case says. “Thinking about doom and gloom isn’t going to get anyone motivated.”

Awareness of the need for an emergency plan isn’t an issue within the industry, but procrastinating or thinking, “It won’t happen to me,” delays action.

“Veterinarians are more aware now than in the past of the need to have a disaster plan in place for their practices and patients,” says Louise Murray,  DVM, vice president of ASPCA's Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York. “However, at this point many practices still do not have a formalized plan.”

Veterinarians in areas prone to natural disasters tend to be more prepared for the unexpected than those in other regions. But responders warn that an emergency can arise anywhere.

“It’s not just natural disasters that we need to be prepared for,” Case says. “The Centers for Disease Control reports 400,000 structural fires a year. Chemical spills, terror attacks and explosions can all devastate a practice’s ability to function. Having a sister practice in an area not too close or too far away is important, so you can have a place to house boarders and patients in an emergency.”

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Ensuring that employees know the practice’s emergency plan is essential, Case says. Keeping employees updated by reviewing the plan annually means fewer emergency scenarios will be overlooked.


“Employees should be trained in the appropriate response to a variety of emergencies, such as natural disasters, hazardous materials and fire,” Dr. Murray says.

“Employees should have a communication plan for situations where cellphones and/or land lines are not working, know first aid, understand generator use, know the location of emergency supplies such as food, water, leashes and carriers, know the transportation plan for personnel and/or patients and know where the emergency animal sheltering is, in case animals need to be moved to a temporary facility.

“Once a plan is created, practicing the plan with drills and exercises is recommended.”

Training workshops for veterinarians and their staff are available through the American Veterinary Medical Association and dates and locations can be found on the association’s website, AVMA.org.


Those who have worked with veterinarians before and after disasters say practitioners should include business needs as part of an emergency plan.

“Every veterinarian should have contact information for their suppliers in a safe place,” Case says. “Inventory records and patient records also need to be kept in a safe place where they can be accessed digitally off site. Critical drug supply backups need to be rotated regularly to ensure the emergency supply doesn’t become outdated. Someone on staff can be in charge of the drug supply rotation.”

Dr. Dwyer urges veterinarians to consider the ramifications if computer systems crash and data is lost. Routine backups to a flashdrive and external hardrive are critical so the computer isn’t the only place data is stored.

“If the only backup is onto an external hardrive, one small fire can cause water and smoke damage that may make that backup nonexistent if kept only at the clinic,” Dwyer says.

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Every practice should keep fuel and a generator capable of running every electrical device needed for basic operation. Ensuring the generator is maintained and everyone knows how to use it is also critical.

“Lighting, refrigeration and water are three critical needs that will sustain a practice,” says Barry Kellogg, VMD, senior veterinary adviser for Humane Society International in North Port, Fla. “Electricity is often the first thing to go in the event of a disaster situation. Generators are easily accessed at a home supply store.”

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio is an important piece of equipment, Dwyer says.

“Make sure batteries in the NOAA radio [are changed] every six months,” Dwyer says. “A communication plan is essential. Know who at the practice has a landline and who knows how to text. A practitioner should also have a good idea of how much time it will take to evacuate the practice if necessary.”

When an adverse event occurs, human lives and safety will come before the needs of animals, but preparing for an emergency increases the safety of every person and animal. AVMA offers “Saving the whole family,” a brochure that provides details for preparing an emergency kit for a variety of animal species. This brochure is available online for free.

Making/Buying a Kit

Veterinarians who want to keep pre-made emergency kits on hand for resale or to relay the information to clients can easily find manufacturers online. Express Companies Inc. of Encinitas, Calif., is the U.S. master distributor for animal emergency kits, and services FirstAidMart.com, Wholesale-Direct-First-Aid.com, FirstAidProduct.com and FirstAidStore.com.

“These products are designed for pet owners, but veterinarians nationwide purchase them for resale,” says Karla Gonzalez, customer service supervisor and pet safety advocate at Express. “They make a great point-of-purchase item. Some clinics and veterinary hospitals are using them as part of a package along with pet first aid courses offered to clientele to help them learn proper care and avoid improper care for pet emergencies that may not require a full veterinary visit/treatment.”

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It used to be recommended that emergency kits be stocked to sustain a person or family for three days. But after Hurricane Katrina, a five-day supply is now considered the minimum for responsible preparation.

Who Will Help?

Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act and the Post-Katrina Emergency Response Act (PKEMRA) in response to public outcry about the safety and wellbeing of animals during disasters.

“The PETS Act allows reimbursement to local authorities when animals and owners are transported out of a harmful situation,” Case says. “It’s important that veterinarians know what help is available to them and their clients.”

“One of the keys to disaster preparedness is for responders, like veterinarians, to know about their state and local veterinary response plans, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the National Response Framework,” says Philip Gruzalski, who is ESF-11 Coordinator for FEMA Region 5.


Dr. Kellogg advises updating insurance policies as part of the practice’s annual emergency review.

“Insurance is constantly changing and should be thoroughly reviewed on a regular basis,” Kellogg says. “The last thing veterinarians want is to be surprised at the lack of coverage they have when they file a claim. Sometimes reviewing insurance options can even save money because of new policy options.”

All veterinarians need to have a plan for their families and homes first, Kellogg says.

“If there’s a widespread emergency and you don’t have a plan, your family’s needs will come before that of the practice,” Kellogg says. “Make sure you know where your family will go and what their plan is, or anything planned out for the practice will be hampered.”


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