Natural Disasters and Horses: Tips to Remember
From floods and fires to tornadoes and thunderstorms, the numerous natural disasters that struck in 2016 starkly reminded horse owners to have their emergency plans set in advance. When you’re evacuating your horses, it’s crucial to know what to do before your trailer rolls out of your facility.

Bill Moyer, DVM, professor emeritus at Texas A&M University’s (TAMU) College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and former member of TAMU’s Veterinary Emergency Team, said that each jurisdiction will have an Emergency Operation Center, but how evacuations take place, who’s involved, and where emergency shelters are located and how they operate vary from place to place.

Each jurisdiction has a mayor, county judge, or other official who orders evacuations during natural disasters. General information is available online (try searching something like “emergency operation center in [your state or county]). If a disaster has already left you without Internet, try searching in your local Yellow Pages under “Government—Emergency Operation Center.” Further, some areas have active agricultural Extension services that can provide direction on managing animals during a disaster.

Additionally, Rebecca Gimenez, PhD, Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue president and primary instructor, encouraged owners to seek out tip sheets from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other organizations on packing and evacuation.

Evacuation Tips

Moyer said owners should move quickly during an emergency if evacuation is likely. “The routes away from an area can easily become a traffic problem, and, in some cases, the ability to get fuel is a significant problem,” he said. “Also, be aware if one lacks a trailer that there may be a problem acquiring such.”

Before a natural disaster threatens, look for friends outside of a possible disaster zone who are willing to take in your horses, and/or research available large-animal shelters in surrounding areas. Ensure each horse has a place to go—don’t assume a location will have room for all of your horses without asking first. Additionally, Moyer said owners should find more than one possible evacuation site in case the primary spot fills up or becomes otherwise unavailable.

Gimenez suggested contacting boarding facilities to arrange for equine lodging, as well, because many public shelters are “first come, first served.”

Owners should also talk to evacuation facility staff ahead of time about fees, what the shelter requires owners to bring, what chores the owner is responsible for, and who has authority to do various things to the horses. Moyer stressed that owners should bring veterinary records in case a horse requires medication or is susceptible to health problems. Additionally, veterinary records can prove useful if questions about the horse’s current vaccination status arise.

Norberto Espitia, PhD, the operations, planning, and safety officer for TAMU’s Veterinary Emergency Team, recommended that owners ask the shelter or evacuation site manager the following questions:

  • How are horses assessed for health status and risk levels (low-risk, at-risk, or high-risk) regarding exposure to a new population of unknown horses with unknown health conditions?
  • Does the facility have an organized method for placing horses per an assigned health risk category? Is there a designated isolation area for animals with health problems?
  • Does the facility separate risk groups so their position is aligned with air flow movement (i.e., so air flows from the low- to high-risk sections)?
  • Are biosecurity practices used and are staff educated on standard operating procedures?
  • Is there a plan on how to handle disposition of animals once horses can start leaving the shelter?
  • If owners don’t claim their horse, where does the horse go next, what financial obligations are reassigned, and can the unclaimed animal be sold at public auction?
  • Are measures in place to document the true ownership of each animal at the time of admission? Do these measures protect the owner at the time the animal is discharged? To prevent theft, are photos of the animal taken with the owner at admission and then used for confirmation of ownership during discharge?

“The best facilities will provide overall security, have you use a check-in process and provide an administrative and logistics storage area, dictate your stalls/stabling facilities, provide some level of biosecurity for the horses, have multiple rules posted; and require a negative Coggins (test and) vaccination and deworming records,” Gimenez said.

“They may have a veterinarian and their staff on location, or at least on call,” she says, adding that owners should research veterinary sources ahead of time in case a shelter veterinarian or their primary equine practitioner is unavailable.

While some shelters might not allow owners to sleep on site, some permit camping if trailers are parked in a designated location. Others might require owners to provide care for their horses and bring their own gear (such as feed and water buckets, bedding, food, etc.), says Gimenez.

If you have a horse that is a stallion, feral, poorly mannered, or not up-to-date on Coggins, vaccinations, and/or deworming, ensure your evacuation facility will accept the horse in advance. Some shelters could refuse to accept such horses.

Returning Home

It’s important to stay informed via television, radio, and/or social media before, during, and after an evacuation. And while you might be anxious to get home after the imminent threat is gone, do not return home until the order is given and that it has been declared safe.

Gimenez said emergency management crews need time to assess and document the damage, retrieve bodies of deceased victims, and to improve the infrastructure in the area, such as traffic signage, utility poles, and return water and power services.

“Get as much information about possible risks before returning,” Moyer added. “If possible, have someone carefully walk your property by way of assessment” and fill you in on what, if any, damage occurred.

Another option is to return home first without horses in tow. It’s not uncommon for owners to find compromised fencing, feed storage, and facilities; dangerous debris; flooded fields and barns; holes that could injure a horse; downed power lines; gas leaks; burning debris; polluted water; critter- and snake-infested buildings; and more. If possible, fix these health threats before bringing horses home to reduce the risk of injury or illness.

Gimenez noted that owners should also be prepared to deal with lots of paperwork, insurance adjusters, lost time at work, financial stress, and possible loss of their home. In some cases, it might be best to find an appropriate boarding facility until the situation at home is stabilized.

Take-Home Message

While no one wants to deal with a natural disaster, these scenarios are a reality for many horse owners. Be prepared in advance with proper planning and research and have patience during the aftermath.