September 15, 2014


 Veterinarians’ roles in disaster response increasing

Posted Sept. 3, 2014

Debrah Schnackenberg said animals are receiving more attention and consideration in disaster plans, and that was shown during last year’s floods in Colorado.

Colorado National Guard helicopters carried about 1,700 people and 800 pets from two communities that had become isolated as floodwaters wiped out roads, bridges, and other infrastructure last year. Veterinarians conducted triage on pets brought off the helicopters, performed first aid, provided referrals for animals that needed more care, and reassured owners. 

Dr. Heather S. Becker, Dr. James S. Gaynor, and Debrah Schnackenberg discuss increased attention given to animals during emergencies and the need for veterinarians to train and prepare prior to disasters. (Photo by Greg Cima)

“We saw a concerted effort by all parties, both on the human side and the animal response side, who put their heads together and said, ‘We can successfully get people and animals out together,’” she said. “And it was a huge effort.”

Schnackenberg is the chief operating officer for the Colorado VMA and director of disaster services at PetAid Colorado, and, in a session at July’s AVMA Annual Convention, she described the need for more veterinarians trained to respond to emergencies and the evolution of animal-related planning connected with those events. She said many communities and counties have established animal response teams in the past four years, but many of those lack veterinarian support.

In a related session, Dr. Heather S. Becker, owner of Animal Emergency Medical Training in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which instructs emergency responders, and Dr. James S. Gaynor, a specialty practice owner in Colorado Springs, described improvements in emergency planning and communication between Colorado’s Waldo Canyon fire of 2012 and Black Forest fire of 2013.

About 32,000 people were evacuated during the Waldo Canyon fire. Dr. Gaynor said hundreds of animals needed help, yet the response was uncoordinated.

The public lacked information on where to bring animals that needed shelter, and an animal shelter run by the city had good equipment but no veterinarians, he said. Many volunteers were untrained.

Dr. Gaynor described the response to the Black Forest fire as “a well-coordinated medical effort.” About 38,000 people were evacuated during that fire.

Dr. Gaynor said veterinarians responding to disasters need advance training on subjects such as triage, incident command, and animal decontamination. Dr. Becker encouraged veterinarians to prepare for emergencies rather than try to become ready once an emergency has started.

The convention included a separate Global Health Summit featuring lectures on veterinarians’ roles in national and international disasters.

One of the speakers during that series, Sebastian E. Heath, PhD, described opportunities for veterinarians in responding to ongoing disasters such as endemic disease and in helping others prepare for emergencies such as droughts and floods. He is a branch chief at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a consultant on animal disease control and livestock commerce and trade.

Dr. Heath indicated livestock owners living in less developed countries are hurt most by endemic foot-and-mouth disease and by avian influenza outbreaks. Such diseases reduce food security, he said, and he cited World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) estimates that morbidity and mortality from animal diseases cause losses of at least 20 percent of global livestock production.

Veterinarians also can help communities in advance of, say, floods by helping cattle owners prepare paths for their animals to reach higher ground. And they can take roles in preventing transmission of zoonotic diseases, such as the Hendra and Nipah viruses that emerged in people and livestock in areas of deforestation and wildlife habitat degradation.