Preparing for a disaster

If disaster strikes, you’ll need to have systems in place to take care of your family, your animals, and your veterinary practice.

A disaster usually doesn’t give us much warning before it happens. But it helps if you are aware of the potential threats most likely to occur in your area. In my own region, earthquakes, fires, floods and weather extremes are likely to be at the top of the list. But emergencies can also occur due to hazardous material spills, riots, terrorist activities and other crises. You need to be prepared when these situations occur – as they will.

A strong plan is a team effort

When planning how to face and survive a disaster, start with the team you interact with in your daily life: family and friends, neighbors, your religious group, school affiliations, veterinary colleagues and staff members at your practice. Add your financial adviser or banker, contractor, attorney, insurance agent and any local response groups.

Meet with neighbors and nearby business leaders. Choose someone to lead the group, make an outline of what needs to be planned, and set dates for follow-up meetings. Make it a priority to plan and conduct a practice exercise with the community, or at least with your clinic. And it should be fun. Your planning should enable you to survive an emergency – and thrive – for at least a few days or even weeks. This will put you in position to make good decisions about your future after the initial crisis of a disaster is behind you.

Preparing your practice for a disaster

Bear in mind that you cannot help other people or pets if you have not taken care of your family first. And just as you need input from family members on a household disaster plan, you will need input and cooperation from your hospital staff and neighbors to make your practice emergency plan work well. Once you have a plan, everyone at your clinic should be familiar with it. Post it in a prominent place and make sure everyone reads it. Like the planning you do at home, you should practice what you need to do – and it should be fun. Once your plan is in place, do a trial run at least once a year. And be sure new employees are briefed.

Your plan could include other veterinary practices in your area to provide a uniform, cooperative response to a crisis. Coordinate your practice drills with them, if possible. A “buddy” system can be used both within your own practice and with another practice. You might want to establish reciprocal agreements with a nearby practice/s to take animals from your clinic (or accept them from theirs) when services are disrupted.

• Should you have to leave animals behind in your clinic in an emergency evacuation, separate dogs and cats and provide enough food and water to last 48 hours. Leave only dry food for them and provide water in nonspill containers. Make sure they are in rooms with adequate ventilation in areas that can be cleaned easily. Fill sinks and bathing tubs half full of water – and, yes, leave the toilet seat up! Put notices on doors advising that there are animals inside, with the location of their medical details, your telephone number and information on your evacuation site.

• If you cannot evacuate livestock, try to relocate them out of harm’s way. Move them to high ground if there is flooding. Provide food and water but do not rely on automatic watering systems (since power may be lost). If you have time, secure or remove outdoor objects that could be become dangerous missiles with high winds.

• Before you evacuate, leave messages on your business answering machine and cell phone listing contact numbers so clients will know the status of your practice and where their pets are located. Post information on a web or Facebook page for more general access.

How your practice responds to the medical needs of injured patients and the emotional care of both pets and people is an important part of handling a disaster. Have an open-door policy that includes seeking care when needed. Offer professional counseling to address anxiety and fear. Use the many holistic approaches for shock, terror, fear, grief, anxiety, worry, frustration, anger, etc. Rescue Remedy and other flower essences should be a part of your response plan, along with instructions so anyone can administer them, until you can assess each animal and person’s unique needs. Having teams of Reiki practitioners (locally or in other states) that you can call on when emergencies happen can be very helpful. Homeopathy, TCVM and other healing modalities will prove essential after emergencies.

After the crisis is over, consider what you must do to rebuild or repair your clinic. You might have to remodel or relocate, or temporarily share space with another hospital. Or you might need to temporarily set up shop in a trailer, mobile veterinary clinic or other space.

You can find a detailed list to print and hand out to your clients for their own preparedness and their pets’ safety on the IVC website and

Disaster to-do list

  • Your insurance policy should be checked and updated at least every two years, or when substantial changes have occurred in your practice.
  • Coordinate with other veterinary practices (and local businesses) ahead of time.
  • Determine how communication will be handled: via cell phone, through an out-of-state or out-of-area contact who will relay messages, via e-mail or message machine, or by other means. Your employee call list can be done alphabetically or by order of priority.
  • Appoint a backup person for each designated responsibility.
  • Decide who will be responsible for transportation, including fuel and maintenance, should you need to evacuate your hospital; who will be responsible for security; and who will be responsible for the safety of animals.
  • Designate a crisis manager who will be in charge of communications with other hospitals and authorities, and will advise your practice team of changes in the disaster situation.
  • Decide who will provide emergency medical treatment for animals.
  • Know what your alternatives will be for power, refrigeration, waste management, and contingencies for dead animals if you remain at your hospital.
  • Designate a shutdown manager and an assembly site manager who will be in charge of evacuating your practice or maintaining operations there, working with your planning group.
  • Decide where, if necessary, you will reassemble, should need to evacuate. Some possibilities include: livestock show grounds or fairgrounds, religious structure, community college, a mall or grocery story parking lot. Use global positioning technology to log the positions of your base hospital as well as animal clinics, shelters, emergency clinics, boarding and grooming facilities, equine stables and mobile clinic home bases, so you will be able to find them when roads are closed.
  • List the most valuable items you will need, should you evacuate:
      • Your computer backup; keep a second backup in a separate location.
      • Treatment logs for currently hospitalized animals.
      • Have three copies of the following, keeping one in your reception area, one in the treatment area and the third with your evacuation supplies: your emergency contacts list, supply and business contacts; a list of pet-friendly hotels
      • Emergency holistic supplies packaged for transport and refreshed every three months or as needed – homeopathic first aid remedies, acupuncture needles, lasers, Yunan Pio, Rescue Remedy and other flower essences.
      • Animal handling equipment: leashes, ID tags, muzzles, roll of gauze, etc