Disease Du Jour: Equine Disasters

Equine disasters often involve veterinarians. Learn more about emergency preparation from Dr. Claudia Sonder.
horses barn flood
It is important to know the geography of where you live when preparing for flooding. Know where the high ground is and the areas that are susceptible to flooding.

Veterinarians are often called on to assist in equine disasters, emergency situations or even lead teams to rescue horses. In this podcast, we talk to Claudia Sonder, DVM, about preparing for equine disasters.

Sonder served as the Director of the UC Davis Center for Equine Health from 2012-2016.  She has specific interest in disaster education and preparedness and has assisted large animal shelter and evacuation efforts regionally in Northern California over the past 8 years. Dr. Sonder serves as the president of the Napa Community Animal Response Team (CART) and assists in disaster coordination of the Northern California Association of Equine Practitioners. Dr. Sonder is a founding member of Cal CART, which was established in 2019 to unite animal response stakeholders and bolster options for mutual aid across the state.

Equine Disasters: Wildfires

“When I talk to veterinarians around the country, we all have different experiences based on where we live,” said Sonder. “The rule of thumb is be familiar with what tends to happen in your area. Although as we all know, that appears to be changing.

“In my area, wildfires weren’t really on my radar until about 2015,” she said. “Then we’ve had a series of large-scale wildfires that forced me into a position of trying to organize resources and make sure we had options for large animals and horses specifically.

“I do recommend that veterinarians think about what could happen to them,” she continued. “In my case being in Napa, California, I could have a flood. I could have a fire. I could have an earthquake. And as the weather tends to be changing a little bit, we don’t know what to be prepared for. For example, in Southern California they just had a cyclone come through!”

Sonder discussed that preparations for equine disasters needs to take place long before there is an actual event.

“Fire for me is a big one, and there is a lot of preparation that goes into fire that is different from flood or earthquake,” she said.

In discussing preparation for wildfires, Sonder said there are some similarities between Napa and the recent devastating fires in Maui, Hawaii.

“What’s really interesting about our region here in Napa and also in Maui, is that that fire’s behavior [in Maui] was predicted in the sense that there was a significant red flag warning that day. We also get red flag warnings here in Napa,” said Sonder. (Editor’s note: the National Weather Service defines a red flag warning to mean that “warm temperatures, very low humidities, and stronger winds are expected to combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger.”)

Sonder said she and her clients have learned that when they get a red flag warning that it is the time to do everything possible to be ready to leave in an instant.

Sonder said the red flag routine for her and her clients includes the following emergency disaster preparations:

  • hook up the trailer,
  • fuel up the truck,
  • get all the animals up,
  • get all the halters and lead ropes up,
  • have a printout with a picture of each one of your animals with contact information for you and someone outside the fire area, lists any medications the animal needs, a little about what they eat, who their veterinarian is
  • have a well-lit loading area

You should practice with your horses under different circumstances before you are in an emergency situation, she advised. “Calm days, windy days, light, dark…just basically drill a rapid leave.

“What I tell people—especially with horses—is leave early,” Sonder said. “Consider it practice. Around here we try to organize places for haulers to go and sit for a bit to see what happens. They are out of harm’s way. Horses are in the trailer.

“Think of a red flag day as an opportunity to get all your ducks in a row,” she advised.

Sonder offered much more advice in the podcast on dealing with fires and horses, including when and how to leave horses behind if it’s not possible to get them out in what she calls her “burnover protocol.”

Equine Disasters: Storms

Storms and tornadoes can come up quickly and cause tremendous damage. Hurricanes fortunately come with some advanced warning. Sonder talked about what to do in various situations.

Storms can be “a terrifying thing,” stated Sonder. She experienced a storm on her own farm with 80 mile-per-hour winds. “We were trying to evacuate horses, and it wasn’t safe! There were projectiles in the air!” she said.

“What I tell folks is human safety comes first,” she stated.

Equine Disasters: Floods

Many areas have suffered from severe flooding that generally don’t have floods.

“The good news about floods in most cases—unlike firestorms—is you usually have some advanced warning,” said Sonder. “Although that is changing! We have experienced flooding here in Napa where we got 12 inches in 24 hours from one of those ‘atmospheric rivers.’ That’s going to cause problems for any community.”

Sonder discussed the ways to prepare for floods. She said it is important to know the geography of where you live. Know where the high ground is and the areas that are susceptible to flooding.

“There are some great apps out there now where you can look at your area under a 100-year flood,” she said. That allows you to figure out where a safe shelter will be for horses you can’t evacuate.”

Sonder said when horses get trapped in floodwaters in a field with fences where they can’t escape. She said she has talked with Dr. Leslie Easterwood at Texas A&M about horses and floods. Easterwood has some great advice for dealing with horses and flooding. (Editor’s note: You can find a one-page tip sheet on Horse Care and Management Tips for Flooded Areas from Texas A&M.)

If horses get trapped in water up to their chest in water, they can have serious complications and even a high mortality rate, said Sonder. She said veterinarians need to be prepared to face those conditions as compared to the conditions horses suffer from during a wildfire.

Equine Disasters: How Veterinarians Prepare

Sonder spent time in the podcast helping equine veterinarians understand the roles they can play in preparing for and serving in equine disasters, which can vary state-by-state. She said animal control in your county can be a great starting point. Sonder differentiated between the roles of animal care teams and veterinarians.

Sonder also discussed how to become more aware, prepared or involved in equine disasters in your area. That included knowing who is in charge and how to volunteer. She said it is also important to know when to triage and when to refer.

Reach out to your local university and see what is available. If nothing is available, talk to your local veterinary medical association and set up some talks for education.

About Dr. Claudia Sonder

Claudia Sonder, DVM, is a 1995 graduate of the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. She owns at Napa Valley Equine in Napa, California. Sonder served as the Director of the UC Davis Center for Equine Health from 2012-2016.  She has specific interest in disaster education and preparedness and has assisted large animal shelter and evacuation efforts regionally in Northern California over the past eight years. Sonder serves as the president of the Napa Community Animal Response Team (CART) and assists disaster coordination of the Northern California Association of Equine Practitioners. Sonder is a founding member of Cal CARTs, which was established in 2019 to unite animal response stakeholders and bolster options for mutual aid across the state.

Editor’s note: Following are some resources on wildfires and smoke inhalation in horses provided by Sonder.

UC Davis Resources: Effects of Wildfires on Animals

Articles

Wildfire: Protecting Animals and Pets, December 17, 200

Wildfire Smoke and Horses, August 24, 2020

California Wildfires: Lessons Learned, Smoke Inhalation Risks, June 18, 2018

Guidelines for Horses Exposed to Wildfire Smoke, December 13, 2017

Wildfire, Smoke and Air Quality Experts (a list of experts at UCD and contact information), June 7, 2023

Research

Wildfires, Smoke and Livestock

Other Resources

AVMA: Wildfire smoke and animals

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