5 Tips for Veterinarians Facing Natural Disasters

November 20, 2018

More than 6,000 fires burned more than 1.3 million acres in California this summer — causing the evacuation of thousands of homes and displacing pets.1 The state again faces fires this fall, making 2018 a devastating year for many residents and animals.

The fires came within five miles of the Haven Humane Society in Anderson, Calif., where staff at the shelter organized emergency care for 940 animals.

“This was, by far, the largest emergency I’ve experienced,” says Cyanna Howden, DVM, Chief Medical Officer at Haven Humane Society. “Our shelter wasn’t evacuated, but many of our employees were evacuated from their homes, and we had to find space for about 640 animals at an offsite location, plus about 300 animals in our shelter.”

The experience of organizing resources during an ongoing natural disaster is still fresh for Dr. Howden, who offers the following tips for veterinarians offering care during future emergencies.

1. Identify offsite locations early
2. Know who to call for help
3. Delegate responsibility
4. Streamline communication
5. Triage injuries and temperaments

Identify locations early

Air quality concerns required Dr. Howden and her team to find an offsite location that was indoors — with adequate air conditioning to help minimize respiratory challenges — and still large enough to meet each animal’s daily needs.

“It’s hard to anticipate where the disaster will strike and what type of resources you’ll need,” she notes. “If it’s possible to have an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with a location, that will help direct your needs and resources.”

Haven Humane Society adapted several empty storefronts in a nearby outlet mall. Repairs were needed to make the storefronts suitable, which coordinated and donated through social media.

Know who to call

One of Dr. Howden’s first contacts was with the North Valley Animal Disaster Group (NVADG), which organizes and trains volunteers — in partnership with other emergency services — to evacuate, rescue, or shelter animals at risk.

Once the area was declared a “disaster” by the governor, Dr. Howden’s team was able to access assistance from the California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps (CAVMRC), which sends volunteer veterinarians to assist affected animals. Dr. Howden is a former board member for the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) and understood the resources available to her shelter.

“I knew I needed to talk to Grant Miller from CAVMRC right away to get prepared and to make the deployment happen,” she recalls. “Of course, the request has to go through the proper lines of communication, but it started to happen really quickly.”

States often have a supply of emergency equipment of kennels and other veterinary supplies. Identifying these locations in advance of an emergency can help ensure veterinarians providing assistance have the resources needed.

Delegate responsibility

Dr. Howden found herself coordinating veterinary care, incoming donations, volunteers, and information about the nearby fires. She divided the responsibilities into six sections and assigned leaders, which improved communication and provided autonomy.

“You can really only be in charge of five people,” she says. “It’s important that you’re not trying to talk to 50 people every day. Instead, we assigned a leader with five people under them, and those five people have five volunteers they communicate with. Right away, we established leaders in each section.”

Streamline communication

Haven Humane Society was able to request specific needs for its emergency response via social media.

“I personally took over our shelter’s social media about six years ago, so I was well equipped to manage the needs of that platform” Dr. Howden explains. “I was in charge of coordinating the efforts from the evacuation center and was able to relay information to our development department who updated people quickly and let everyone know what our needs were. For example, we put out a plea for air conditioner mechanics and six or seven people showed up within a few hours and donated their time. Social media was huge for us.”

Quick updates via social media allowed Haven Humane Society to reduce the amount of unnecessary donations and freed volunteers to only manage supplies that were most important.

Triage injuries and temperaments

Common animal injuries included upper respiratory problems, burns, bites, and general distress. Triaging each case helped separate pets with chronic illness. Dr. Howden and her team also separated animals based on temperament to ensure stress was kept to a minimum.

“In high-stress situations, there’s a greater chance of catching something. You have to manage the whole herd and get everyone separated as quickly as possible,” she notes. “There were animals with general anxiety and those that were just more aggressive. We tried to keep those animals separated to help lower the stress and improve recovery.”

In many cases, a veterinarian’s ability to separate animals will depend on the location. Haven Humane Society was able to designate a few separate areas. However, space was limited. For example, there was one room for about 350 cats. The number of animals housed together was stressful itself — combined with the strain of evacuation and injuries.

During the wildfires, Haven Humane Society treated about 15 cats for burnt feet and faces. Treating burns and changing bandages each day took up a significant amount of time. Injured animals were closely monitored by veterinarian volunteers to ensure they were eating and drinking.

Cats have special dietary needs compared to many other animals and are sensitive to even brief periods of poor nutrition.2 If cats refused to eat, veterinarians first made changes to their diet. In some cases, stressed or injured animals experienced weight loss and were prescribed Mirataz® (mirtazapine transdermal ointment).

The topically applied product was easy to administer in an emergency where a licensed veterinarian or technician wasn’t always available to directly apply it, Dr. Howden notes. The veterinarian on duty was free to focus on other tasks after prescribing the product, administering the first dose and explaining the application procedure.

“We were able to describe the administration procedure to the volunteer and put that person in charge,” she says. “We didn’t have to rely on a vet being available to give the medication every time it was needed. Cats don’t always want to take something by mouth, in these cases especially, they want to be left alone.”

Prepare for success

Nearly all the animals Haven Humane Society cared for made a full recovery. The shelter was able to reunite pets with their owners or facilitate adoptions.

“People in our area were so happy — and even privileged — to adopt animals that had suffered effects of the fires,” Dr. Howden says. “In fact, we didn’t see any difference between animals that came to us during the fires and other animals that were in the shelter normally.”

For more information on disaster preparedness for veterinarians, visit the American Veterinary Medication Association.

To help veterinarians and pets continue to recover from the wildfires, visit the California Veterinary Medical Foundation (CVMF).

Mirataz is indicated for the management of weight loss in cats.

Important Safety Information

Mirataz® (mirtazapine transdermal ointment) is for topical use in cats only under veterinary supervision. Do not use in cats with a known hypersensitivity to mirtazapine or any of the excipients. Do not use in cats treated with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). Not for human use. Keep out of reach of children. Wear gloves when handling/applying, wash hands after and avoid contact between the treated cat and people or other animals for 2 hours following application. Use with caution in cats with hepatic and kidney disease. Cat’s food intake should be monitored upon discontinuation. Safety has not been evaluated in cats less than 2 kg, less than six months of age or in breeding, pregnant or lactating cats. The most common adverse reactions observed during clinical trials were application site reactions, behavioral abnormalities (vocalization and hyperactivity) and vomiting. For product label, including complete safety information, click here.


1. California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection. 2018 Statistics and Events. https://www.fire.ca.gov/stats-events/. Accessed September 13, 2019.

2. Agnew W, Korman R. Pharmacological appetite stimulation: rational choices in the inappetent cat.
J Feline Med Surg. 2014;16(9):749-756.