Preparing for the Worst: Planning for Animal Care in Disasters

First, a Little Story….

When I was a recent Pony Club graduate, I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas and Oklahoma to teach a few weeks of summer camp for some local clubs.  One club in particular had a robust program for its members; few of the riders owned their own horses but instead were dropped off at the DC’s facility, where an appropriate mount was provided.  When I asked how many horses were actually on site, the answer was “something on the order of seventy five before we stopped keeping count”.  Horses were stashed here, there and everywhere, with a large number living in a herd on the hill.  Mind you, this was Kansas, so “hill” is a relative term.  But each morning, the members would head up to the hill, halter and lead slung over one shoulder, horse treats in hand, and they rode whichever horse they could catch.

If you live in the Midwest, apparently tornado sirens become a sound synonymous with summer.  During the first several days of camp, the sirens went off at least daily, causing this New Englander’s hair to stand on end.  “Shouldn’t we take shelter or something?” I asked nervously the first time they went off, while simultaneously noting that no one else, human or equine, looked remotely concerned.  “Oh no,” came the reply.  “There is nothing going on right now.  Those just go off every time there is the remotest chance there might possibly be a tornado.  If we went inside every time they went off, we’d never get anything done.”


The sirens continued to intermittently howl, and as the days went by, I began to adopt the “casual and carefree” attitude of the locals.  I will admit that a part of me wondered what the point was of having a warning sound which no one seemed to listen to.  Nevertheless, they lived here, I didn’t, and they weren’t worried.  So why should I be?

Then there was The One Morning.

I will never forget it.  The air was thick—humid, oppressive, heavy–the kind of air that only a strong thunderstorm can get moving again, the harbinger of a front and a change of tide.  While the air felt still on the ground, the clouds above were agitated and rolled along quickly; not in a leisurely, lazy summer afternoon sort of way, but in a hectic, hurried and disturbed manner.  And the sky was green.  Everything felt positively unsettled.  Then the sirens went off.  Again.

I went to the covered arena, where the first group of riders was already mounted and waiting to start their lesson.  I looked to read their faces, to see if any level of concern was creeping into their visages.  I certainly felt on edge.  Most were busying themselves in adjusting tack and joking with each other.  No one looked worried.  “Ok,” I thought. “This must be just another day.”

But not one beat later, the only other Real Adult on the farm (my co-instructor) came running over.  “I am going up on the hill to get the kids back down,” she yelled.  “Tell these guys to pull off the bridles and get in the shelter.”

“WHAT?!” I couldn’t help but exclaim.  Her instructions seemed irrational.

She grabbed my arm and pointed to the roiling clouds.  “Do you see how that cloud is curling that one way, but that one is doing it the opposite?” she asked.  I did.  “That is how they start.  Tornados.  This is a siren we listen to.”

So we pulled the bridles, grabbed the attention of all the kids on the hill and ran for the storm shelter.  The older children reassured the younger ones, while I tried to remind myself that I was also supposed to be a Real Adult and needed to be calm and in charge of the situation.  Fortunately for us, the area we were in only experienced a strong thunderstorm with large and damaging hail; a neighboring town was less fortunate, as a tornado did in fact touch down, though leaving minimal damage.

The experience for me was a powerful one on a number of levels.  As someone who has lived in the northeastern US for her entire life, tornados were an unfamiliar threat; I had to rely on the wisdom and experience of the locals for guidance as to how to act.  Their reaction showed a level of composure that only comes from having done something before; even the younger children knew what to do and got themselves to a safe place efficiently and calmly.  Yet it got me thinking about how easy it is to become nonchalant about those threats that we face on a regular basis, perhaps leaving us unprepared to quickly react when true danger is imminent.

New Englanders don’t usually face threats from sudden and hard to predict events like tornados and earthquakes.  Our natural disaster risks are most often weather related—the classic “nor-easter” winter storms and blizzards, ice storms, and in milder weather, hurricanes.  These are events which have the capacity to paralyze a region figuratively and literally; however, they also usually come with plenty of warning.  In spite of this, local residents are usually found scrambling at the last minute to refill pantries, replace batteries and to check generators.

My horse, Carmel, after the New England Blizzard of 2015.
My horse, Carmel, after the New England Blizzard of 2015.

In 2011, Hurricane Irene left a devastating wake of destruction in its path, especially impacting Vermont, a state which normally escapes hurricanes relatively unscathed.  When I lived in Vermont during the summer of 2014, many of the areas which I travelled through each day to get to and from work had been under water after Irene came through.  What was chilling is the fact that the rivers in this area for the most part are shallow enough for fly fishing or even just wading; tubing is a popular past time as well, but the waters are so tame that it is possible to devote one tube to one’s beverage of choice.  It is nearly impossible to imagine that these seemingly placid rivers could ever reach a flood stage that would cause so much damage and destruction. Yet even now, three and a half years later, there are numerous locations in Vermont and New York which still have piles of debris now weathered by the sun , pushed high up on banks and into fields.  These piles serve as silent reminders that disasters can affect us in even the most unlikely of locations.

For perspective, this photo was taken from the cab of a GMC 2500 Heavy Duty pick up.  Hood is visible at bottom of image.
For perspective, this photo was taken from the cab of a GMC 2500 Heavy Duty pick up. Hood is visible at bottom of image.

Defining Disaster

Pearce (2000) defines a disaster as a non-routine event that exceeds the capacity of the affected area to respond to it in such a way as to save lives, to preserve property and to maintain the social, ecological, economic and political stability of an affected region. Disasters are usually large scale, cross geographic, political and academic boundaries and require response and recovery efforts greater than what a local community’s resources are equipped to provide.  According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), most common disasters are weather related or geological in origin; some are predictable (like a hurricane or blizzard) and some are not (earthquakes).  Clearly there are also disasters that are manmade in origin; this could include a toxic spill, a nuclear reactor failure, or acts of terrorism.


For individuals who are responsible for managing animals, ignoring the threat of disaster is simply unacceptable.  In fact, FEMA emphasizes that owners are individually responsible for the animals under their care during a disaster threat.  If you as an animal caregiver are not prepared, then it is more likely that you will potentially experience a devastating loss.   Ultimately, animal caregivers will need less outside assistance and will experience fewer losses if they face the possibility of disaster with proper preparation.

FEMA defines five areas of emergency management:

  • Prevention
  • Protection
  • Mitigation
  • Response
  • Recovery

The first three areas are all geared towards “preparedness”, which is better defined as the prevention of or decreasing the cause, impact and consequence of disasters.  Taken cumulatively, the goal is to create “a continuous cycle of planning, organizing, training, equipping, exercising, evaluating and taking corrective action in an effort to ensure effective coordination during an incident and response”  (FEMA).  Preparedness activities include planning, training and educational actions.  Response defines those efforts which occur in the immediate aftermath of a disaster; during this phase businesses and other services might not be normal.  The term recovery addresses those restoration efforts which occur concurrently with regular operations and activities; this phase can be prolonged in the case of a severe disaster.

Considering for the care and safety of animals (livestock as well as companion) during a disaster is a critical component to a community’s Emergency Operations Plan, because experience has shown that by planning for the care of animals, a community ultimately is planning for the care of its citizens.

Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, leaving over 1800 people dead and causing nearly $89 billion in property damage (FEMA).  In addition to the loss of human life, thousands of chickens, cows and hogs were lost, as well as hundreds of horses and companion animals.  The negative effects on agriculture in the region were felt for years.  A portion of these losses were the result of individuals who failed to evacuate in a timely manner due to concerns for their animals.  It has been proven time and again that when it comes to their animals, people will put themselves at risk by going back into damaged areas to rescue animals or failing to evacuate when told to do so.

New Orleans, LA--Aerial views of damage caused from Hurricane Katrina the day after the  hurricane hit August 30, 2005.
New Orleans, LA–Aerial views of damage caused from Hurricane Katrina the day after the hurricane hit August 30, 2005.

And while major disasters like Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Irene, and the tornado which devastated Moore, Oklahoma in 2013, grab the national media headlines, livestock producers (which includes horse farms under FEMA guidelines), suffer the most losses from small scale disasters and local events, such as localized flooding, hazardous waste spills and fire.

It is easy to become overwhelmed or to feel hopeless or helpless in the face of some of these disasters.  Where should a concerned animal caregiver start when it comes to planning for disaster?

Lessons from Irene, Rita and Katrina and Moore: How to Protect Your Animals

Preparedness (prevention, protection and mitigation) are the three areas in which animal care givers have the most control of the outcome of a disaster event.  Below are some specific areas in which to focus your energy.

Know your area

Certain weather or geological events are more common in some parts of the country than others.  Here in New England, we are more likely to face severe snow or ice storms or hurricanes than fires, tsunamis or earthquakes.  However, I remember flying into Boise, ID, a few years back to the sight of smoke out the plane window, rising from uncontained wildfires in the region.  My friends from Kansas were accustomed to the threat of tornados.   Knowing which kinds of threats are most likely to affect you will help you choose the best types of protection and mitigation strategies.  This might mean relocating a barn out of a flood plain along a river, building fire stops into the landscape on a western farm or installing an automatic generator to power a well in New England.

A 2007 wildfire near Santa Barbara, CA.
A 2007 wildfire near Santa Barbara, CA.

Disaster Kit

Every animal care provider should have an emergency disaster kit which is kept stocked and accessible; it is important to periodically check the kit and update its contents.  The exact content will vary depending on the species which you are taking care of.  For companion animals like cats and dogs, the kit might contain spare harnesses/leashes, carriers/crates, bowls, litter/litter boxes, dry or canned food, spare medications, toys, beds, and copies of health paperwork; essentially, everything you would need to take care of your pet, all stored together in one place for easy collection if the need for a quick evacuation arose.

For larger animals like horses it is more complicated; however, a modified version of this kit might be kept in your trailer.  Similar to above, the kit should contain items that would allow you to care for your horse in the event that you needed to evacuate; it is ideal to be able to bring grain/hay, but in a true emergency this might not be possible.  Spare halters/leads, health paperwork, first aid kit and proof of ownership/identification are good to keep in one easy to access location.

Planning for the removal of horses and having a pre-packed disaster kit can lead to a more efficient evacuation. Photo:  Kathy Anderson, University of Nebraska
Planning for the removal of horses and having a pre-packed disaster kit can lead to a more efficient evacuation. Photo: Kathy Anderson, University of Nebraska


Having clear identification on your animals can make it possible to be reunited with them post-disaster as well as clarify ownership in situations where large numbers of animals may be gathered for shelter.  Owners of companion animals should consider implanting permanent microchip identification, but can also use tags on collars and harnesses.  Livestock such as horses can also be microchipped but identification is more likely to rely on markings, coloring, permanent ID like tattoos and brands, as well as photos.  Owners who have had to evacuate without livestock sometimes resort to labelling taped phone numbers on halters or even painting the owner’s phone number on the animal themselves.

Several horses were brought in to the Animal Disaster Response Facility staged in the Ford Arena outside Beaumont following Hurricane Rita's landfall. Bob McMillan/ FEMA Photo
Several horses were brought in to the Animal Disaster Response Facility staged in the Ford Arena outside Beaumont following Hurricane Rita’s landfall. Bob McMillan/ FEMA Photo

Plan Escape Routes/Alternative Housing

In its Emergency Management Institute training, FEMA encourages animal owners to take their pets with them when told to evacuate, if it doesn’t jeopardize human safety, even if you have no place to go. However, planning in advance for your animals will alleviate stress and worry during a chaotic time.

Consider looking into staying with friends or relatives from out of town as well as pet friendly hotels; knowing several areas to which you could go will provide alternatives if some routes are impassable.  Note that many Red Cross and public shelters are unable to allow animals in due to public health concerns.   Contact local shelters and animal welfare groups in your area in advance to locate potential shelters which will allow animals during disaster.

Large animals are obviously a bit more complicated and require advance planning. Fairgrounds, large horse farms, racetracks, show facilities and veterinary referral hospitals all have taken in livestock during evacuation orders.  Many states have an emergency DART (disaster animal rescue team) which might be able to refer owners to evacuation centers within the region.

The unfortunate reality is that when it comes to large animals like horses, it may simply be impossible to save all the animals, especially in the case of a “sudden impact” event like fire, tornado or flash flood.  In these situations, saving some is preferable to saving none, so managers should know in advance which animals are the priorities to get to safety.

If a potential disaster is aiming for your area, it is best to respond to the threat at the earliest sign of danger.  Using the tornado example from the beginning of the blog, the other adult went to get the children from the hill and so began to enact their emergency drill as soon as it became clear that a tornado threat was imminent.  This meant that all of the Pony Clubbers were able to take shelter before the storm’s force hit the area, and if a tornado had actually come through, that they had the best chance of emerging unscathed.  If the actions prove unnecessary due to the threat moving away, the practice gives managers the opportunity to assess and modify the emergency plan so that it will work effectively when it counts.

Two horses in a flooded Missouri pasture.  FEMA photo.
Two horses in a flooded Missouri pasture. FEMA photo.

Get Involved in Your Community

When it comes to disaster preparedness, no one is better equipped to plan for the safety and well-being of a community’s animal residents than their caretakers.  This is particularly true when it comes to large animals like horses.  It is the responsibility of local government to create an emergency plan to serve as the roadmap for an effective and coordinated response in the event of disaster.  These plans are typically reviewed on a regular basis, and these reviews can present the perfect opportunity for the input of knowledgeable and skilled livestock and animal caretakers.  Local resources and expertise usually are the best source of ideas, and can identify those resources which already exist or are needed within a specific community.  Developing a cohesive plan with the input of all critical stakeholders is the only way to ensure that citizens, animals and property will be protected during an emergency.

In its Emergency Management Institute training, experts from FEMA recommend that animal caretakers take the initiative to see if their community’s plan addresses the needs of livestock and companion animals.  If the existing plan does not address these concerns, then the impetus to improve or revise the plan moving forward will likely need to come from the caretakers themselves.

Further Education

FEMA offers a variety of free online courses through its Emergency Management Institute which can help provide a more complete picture of disaster planning.  These programs take participants through the disaster preparedness process and help them to consider how disaster planning can benefit their farm and community.  After passing a final exam, participants may download a certificate of completion and/or receive continuing education credits.

The whole list of offerings is found at

I have personally completed four courses relevant to planning for animals in disaster, and would highly recommend them to anyone who might find themselves in charge of the wellbeing of animals in an emergency situation.

IS-10 Animals in Disaster: Module A, Awareness and Preparedness

IS-11 Animals in Disaster: Module B, Community Planning

IS-111 Livestock in Disasters

IS-100.b Basic Incident Command System

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