Study finds gains in disaster planning for animals

Many areas woefully unprepared, however
Published on November 29, 2017
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

Most U.S. states and about half of high-population cities and counties have organizational infrastructure for managing animals during a disaster, such as a state or county animal response team. However, only about one in four smaller-population counties had such an organization, even in regions prone to frequent natural disasters.

FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team
A FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team removes a pet dog while looking for stranded residents in a flooded North Carolina neighborhood following Hurricane Matthew in 2016. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA)

These are findings of the first nationwide assessment of emergency response capabilities for animals, conducted by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and published online Sept. 9 in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in an article titled "The National Capabilities for Animal Response in Emergencies (NCARE) Study: An Assessment of US States and Counties" (

The survey of officials who oversee emergency preparedness in U.S. states and counties, led by ASPCA consultant Dr. Vic Spain, investigated which American communities are prepared to deal with the animal victims of an emergency and how and where emergency response planning can be improved.

The results of the study were mixed; while much progress has been made, much still remains to be done. While most states and nearly half of high-population cities and counties have the infrastructure to manage animals in a disaster, most reported additional needs for emergency preparedness, such as training, expertise, and equipment.

A little more than half of U.S. counties reported having plans for emergency shelters in which pets and people could be housed together, known as "collocated" or "cohabitational" shelters.

"From previous studies, we know that people with pets are more likely than people without pets to refuse to evacuate in an emergency situation—putting their lives, as well as the lives of first responders sent to rescue them, in danger," Dr. Spain said.

"It is, therefore, important to remove barriers to evacuation, and when that happened, during Hurricane Sandy, for example, residents were more likely to comply with evacuation orders where pet-friendly emergency shelters were available, their presence was known to local residents, and pet-friendly transportation to the shelters was offered."

Veterinary professionals or humane organizations interested in emergency preparedness can take any number of actions to address the gaps identified in the study, according to Dr. Spain. As a reference for establishing a county animal response team or similar organization, he recommends the "Community Animal Disaster Planning Toolkit" posted on the Colorado State University Extension website (

Veterinarians can join the veterinary medical reserve corps in their state in the 36 states that have established a corps, Dr. Spain said. Members of a VMRC can improve capabilities with training for emergency response, such as Federal Emergency Management Agency courses on the Incident Command System or the National Incident Management System.

Also, veterinary professionals and local humane organizations can support planning for shelters where people and pets can be housed in the same location. "In our experience, these models can be implemented effectively and safely, with little or no risk of adverse health consequences for shelter residents," Dr. Spain explained. "They also cost substantially less than other models because the animal owners, rather than staff, provide care for the animals."

Most animal deaths during quickly developing disasters, such as wildfires, floods, and tornadoes, occur within the first 24-48 hours of disaster onset—before state or national responders who can assist with animals typically arrive, according to Dr. Spain. Many communities will benefit from identifying a local animal organization that can be charged with managing companion animals in an emergency.

"Organizations at the county or city level are critical for emergency response to occur quickly enough to prevent animal emergencies," he explained.

Related JAVMA content

From 9/11 to now: Disaster preparedness and response evolves (Sept 15, 2011)