October 29, 2003 | By: Haven Miller
LEXINGTON, Ky.

Whether it’s family pets left behind in a flood or livestock hit with a disease, adverse impacts on animals during disasters affects the quality of life for humans.

That’s the message articulated by veterinarian and internationally-known animal health consultant Sebastian Heath during a recent presentation at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture on the consequences of disasters on animal and human health. 

Over the past several years, Heath has studied what happens to people and animals when communities must evacuate because of fires, chemical spills or floods.  After one such disaster, the Yuba County, California flood of 1997, Heath asked residents if they evacuated and if they took their cats or dogs with them.

He found the decision of whether or not to evacuate is strongly linked to presence or absence of children, and the number of pets a family owns.

“We found that the failure of people to evacuate is a feature of households without children, and it’s so common in those households that for every additional pet they own the chance the owners will not evacuate doubles,” he said.  “So somebody with more than three animals, for example, has an eight times greater chance of not evacuating than somebody with a single animal.”

For people with children the results were different because often parents would first leave without the pets, but soon return for the pets to meet the needs of the children. 

Heath said for people with multiple animals it’s difficult for them to transport their cats and dogs to safety, and the consequences can pose a serious threat to public safety.

“On average every year in the U.S. probably about 300,000 people do not evacuate because of their pets,” he said.

The challenge to communities, he said, is to survey neighborhoods and determine who the people are with multiple pets and most likely to need help in time of disaster, then set up networks and implement programs to do that.

“Several cities are going door to door when an evacuation is ordered and offering people cardboard boxes, leashes, collars and carriers for cats and dogs,” Heath said. “We need to think about how we can turn disasters into opportunities rather than just going along and saying we need to do more pet rescues.”

According to Heath, who authored the book “Animal Management in Disasters,” the fate of livestock during disasters or infectious disease outbreaks also has implications for human health and welfare.  An example is foot and mouth disease.

“It really wasn’t until the (2001) outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom that the federal government really started paying attention to animals and disasters, and really started thinking about the tremendous consequences that livestock could have on communities in general,” Heath said.

He said impacts of an animal infectious disease such as foot and mouth are not just on animal health, but on social and financial systems as well. An example is the strong connection between livestock and feed grains.

“For every 100,000 cattle we would kill or would go off feed because of foot and mouth disease, the global corn supply would increase by 8 percent, and that means that for every 100,000 animals that would go off feed here in the U.S. the global corn price would come down, and that could have serious implications for developing countries and other corn and soybean producing countries,” Heath said.

Heath said we should develop serious and meaningful farm-based security programs to prevent the spread of animal infectious diseases. 

He also said we, as a society, need to start looking at animal disease control within the broader context of hazard preparedness generally, and establish a continuum of preparedness for all kinds of disasters.

Heath’s presentation was sponsored by UK’s Barnhart Fund for Excellence and the Department of Veterinary Science.

Contact: 

Writer: Haven Miller, 859-257-4736, ext. 272