Tag Archives: horses in disaster

Animals in Disaster: Preparing for the Worst to Create the Best Outcome

If you’re like me, when you hear the word “disaster”, you probably think in terms of Disasters with a capital “D”: once-in-a-lifetime events causing catastrophic damage and leaving lasting impacts on individuals and communities. While many times we think in terms of natural disasters, like floods, wildfires, or hurricanes, unfortunately, Disasters come in many other forms– infectious disease, transportation or chemical accidents, and even terrorism. When Disaster strikes, sometimes we have warning, and those in its likely path have time to prepare. But just as often, the Disaster is unexpected, sudden, or even insidious, its effects so subtle at first that no one pays much attention until it is too late.

When Hurricane Katrina demolished the city of New Orleans in 2005, officials knew it was coming, though they had no way to predict the catastrophic failure of the city’s levee system that was to come. Human evacuation orders were issued—but no plan was in place for the residents’ animals. This forced residents to make a horrible choice; flee the storm and leave their animals behind, or stay, threatening not only their own lives but those of first responders. One source claims that some 44% of at-risk New Orleans residents did not evacuate because they wouldn’t abandon their pets. Ultimately, nearly 2,000 people and as many as 150,000 non-human animals perished.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Two years later, a Harvard School of Public Health survey of residents living in high-risk hurricane areas found that more than 25% of respondents would not obey evacuation orders if they could not bring their pets with them. Later, an article in the September 2017 issue of the American Journal of Public Health detailed the significant physical and mental health risks associated with failing to plan for animals in disaster.

Clearly, making a plan to save animal lives in a Disaster is, in fact, a plan to save human lives.

It isn’t only traditional companion animals that need consideration in times of disaster. Photo by Ben Mater on Unsplash

As a direct result of public outcry in Katrina’s aftermath, in 2006, Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which requires local and state governments to accommodate pets and service animals in their emergency plans. Although the PETS Act was a huge step forward, it remains an unfunded mandate, meaning it is up to municipalities and states to figure out how to make it happen, financially. Further, the PETS Act specifically excludes livestock species and horses, even if said animals are essentially family pets.

Clearly, the PETS Act is a step in the right direction, but for livestock and horse owners, it is not enough. Frankly, state and federal governments should be much more concerned. Not only is there a personal impact when livestock is affected by a Disaster, but there is also an economic one. For a recent example, after Hurricane Ian slammed into the Ft. Meyers, Florida area in September 2022, researchers at the University of Florida estimated a loss of “$220 million worth of animals and animal products.” In the Florida Bar Journal’s March/April 2023 edition, author Mallory Lizana argues for stronger protections for all species:

“Domestic animals depend on us for shelter, food, and protection, especially during times of disaster. Not only are horses and cattle worth saving as sentient beings, but they also play critical roles for Florida’s economy. Furthermore, household pets are considered and treated more like members of the family with every growing year. These animals are worth protecting, not only for their own sake, but for ours as well.”

The bond between an equestrian and her horse is irrefutable and is put to the test during a disaster.
Photo by Kenny Webster on Unsplash

Recently, I had the opportunity to represent the New Hampshire Horse Council at a free training on the subject of preparedness for animals in disasters, sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This particular training was intended to “…introduce participants to the resources available during emergencies that will assist in the management of animals, to identify best practices for emergency response that involves animals, and to assist participants in understanding how animals are included in a disaster plan.” In attendance were firefighters, emergency medical technicians/paramedics, community planners, veterinarians (including two assistant state veterinarians), dairy promoters, county animal response team (CART) members, and concerned private citizens. Attendees represented agencies and organizations spanning at least three states.

Perhaps one of my biggest takeaways from the training is that when it comes to animal emergencies, it isn’t only Disasters that need to be planned for. Smaller scale incidents— like loose livestock in a roadway, a horse stuck in a bridge, or a collapsed barn with live animals trapped inside—can still require a coordinated local response from public servants who may lack animal experience, local residents, and animal specialists. This means community members and organizations with animal expertise, tools and/or other resources must both be included in response planning and be prepared to assist as needed.

Further, the impact of both natural and man-made disasters can be short or long-term. By their very nature, some disasters—like drought, or a disease outbreak—may require long-term strategies to mitigate the effects and move toward recovery.

Drought is one form of disaster with both short and long-term impacts.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Although the focus of this FEMA training was oriented toward “big picture” animals-in-disaster planning, it certainly got me thinking about more practical steps that we as animal owners and caretakers should take to be as prepared as possible if a “worst-case scenario” occurs. With the caveat that it is impossible to predict every emergency situation, by looking at historical events that have occurred in your area and applying a little common sense, you can make an educated guess as to the most likely types of incidents to expect. When it comes to increasing the chances of your animals surviving a Disaster, for sure the best defense is a good offense.

The following is my own personal brainstorm of actions animal owners can take to prepare for a Disaster (or disaster), ranging from everyday good management practices to broader-scale activities. Some ideas relate just to horses, but others include our small animal companions, too. Not all of these steps will apply to every situation; think about your own unique circumstances and adjust accordingly!

General Good Management

Practice good hygiene—isolate new horses and those that travel from the home herd. Do not share equipment or touch unknown horses. Ask guests to come to your facility in clean clothes and wash their hands before interacting with your animals.

Stay alert to animal-related health incidents in your area, and adjust your management plan accordingly.

Microchip all animals, and keep chip info up to date.

Maintain a stocked animal first aid kit(s). Ideally, have two: one to live in your barn, and one to live in your trailer.

Stock at least two weeks’ worth of animal feed and medications at any given time.

Ensure all animals are up-to-date on vaccinations and other routine tests, such as Coggins. Store relevant health paperwork in your tow vehicle, on your phone, and in at least one other location.

Maintain up-to-date identification photos of all animals (to prove ownership).

Ensure all animals have well-fitted handling equipment readily available (halters, leads, harnesses, leashes).

Keep aisles clear, and doors and gates operational (it should not be a struggle to get in and out quickly).

Routinely inspect and repair all fencing, particularly after strong weather.

Photos to identify horses should be taken from both sides, as well as front and rear, with additional close-ups of unique identifying marks, scars, or brands.

If You Need to Shelter in Place

Figure out a system to store extra water—at least 5 gallons per animal—before you need it in an emergency. Have a plan for water access if power is off for an extended period, or if local water sources are contaminated.

Consider installing a generator sufficient to meet basic facility needs.

Purchase livestock marking crayons to mark horses with your phone number. Sharpies can also work in a pinch. Consider your horses’ coat colors in terms of which form of identification will show up best. Both of these methods of marking are commonly used in endurance riding; they are non-toxic and water-resistant.

Label halters with heavy-duty tape and include contact info.

Do not overstock your facility. Ensure adequate, species-appropriate shelter for all animals in your care.

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

If You Need to Evacuate

In this case, time may be of the essence—share your plan with staff, family members, and neighbors that may be involved in executing it, and consider doing a “practice run” annually or biannually.

Own enough carriers to safely accommodate all your small animals.

Create an evacuation plan—where will you go with horses? Small animals? Try to plan more than one option. Consider how various routes in your area could be impacted in times of strong weather or mass evacuation.

Keep trucks/trailers accessible (shoveled out in winter), in good repair, and fueled up.

If you do not have enough trailers to evacuate all animals on site, or you do not have enough time to remove them, what will you do for those left behind? Consider: marking animals, leaving them inside vs. outside, water sources, etc. In advance, decide which animals are a priority to evacuate, and which will stay.

It is important to practice trailering frequently enough that you can count on your horse to load, even in an emergency.

Be an Active Citizen

Become familiar with your community’s emergency response plan. Advocate that the needs of domestic animals, including livestock and horses, be included in this plan.

Study the types of natural or man-made disasters that might affect your area. Evaluate your property, or the facility where your horses are stabled, to assess how these types of incidents might impact these areas specifically, and work to mitigate these impacts in advance. Don’t forget to consider the impacts on access roads as well.

Support local and regional organizations specifically tasked with helping animals in disaster, such as state horse councils, the SPCA, Community Animal Response Teams (CART), and safety net organizations, whether as a volunteer or through donations.

Credit for cover image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/8113246@N02/26246210340, shared through Creative Commons license.

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 http://training.fema.gov/is/crslist.aspx.

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