Dogs in Disasters: What Can the Veterinary Team Do?
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2013
Kate Hill
Director Centre for Service and Working Dog Health, Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand

First Responder Dogs in Disasters

Dogs are used in searches due to their impressive olfactory system. Search and rescue (SAR) dogs have become an important part of search and rescue operations. Search dogs are used for both live searches and cadaver searches. The public profile of these dogs has also increased after disasters such as the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, the attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11 2001, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Haiti Earthquake of 2010.

Most dogs used in search and rescue operations are privately owned and privately trained. The dogs are pets as well as highly trained workers. Most SAR dogs will be from a working, herding, sporting or retrieving breed, however mixed breeds can be successful. One of the most important characteristics of SAR dogs is the desire to play. Dogs with a strong ball drive, hunt drive or prey drive can be trained to be good SAR dogs. Other qualities are good temperaments, good scent drive rather than visual drive, trainable, inquisitive, friendly and energetic. Many SAR dogs have been found in pounds or shelters, as their energy levels have been too high for the general population.

The dogs involved in Urban SAR or Land SAR are often mixed breed, high energy dogs and have many hours of training before accreditation. Other dogs such as Police dogs, Military dogs or bomb detector dogs, may be specially bred for their job, but still require extensive training.

How Can the Veterinary Team Get Involved?

The dog's ability to continue to work effectively depends on the ability to recognise and treat promptly any injuries and illnesses that may arise. During initial deployment many minor acute injuries such as dehydration and woundings, ocular discharge and inappettance as well as exposure to toxins such as lead have been documented (Fox et al. 2008; Gordon 2012). It is, therefore important that these dogs receive medical care during deployment operations. In some countries, rescue operations include veterinary team members who can provide this onsite care. There is an opportunity for veterinarians or veterinary staff to become involved in the team, training alongside search and rescue personal.

During the Christchurch earthquake in February 2011 the Massey University Veterinary emergency response team (MU VERT) was onsite, inside the Red Zone checking the health status of the rescue dogs. Many of these dogs received fluid therapy and had minor acute injuries such as pad injuries and conjunctivitis (Figure 1) (Hill, Squance et al. unpublished data). After supportive therapy, the handlers of these dogs subjectively felt that the dogs performed better during their shifts.

Figure 1. Illness and injury in search and rescue and police dogs deployed in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake
Figure 1. Illness and injury in search and rescue and police dogs deployed in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake


Veterinary staff can also be involved in the wellbeing of these dogs (Jones et al. 2004). Some special considerations are required for these dogs. The dogs must be physically capable of very active work, so should be screened for debilitating orthopaedic issues such as hip and elbow dysplasia. To prevent ligament injuries, dogs can be taught stretch exercises. For more information search under "pennvetwdc" on youtube for specific working dog stretches. The dogs need to be free of cardio-respiratory diseases and most dogs will need to bark at some stage, so laryngeal conditions such as laryngeal paralysis need to be monitored for. It must be remembered that the handlers of these dogs are very aware of the dog's needs and whether they are working to their potential, so any complaint should be taken seriously. There has been little research into the effects of medications on the olfaction of dogs. There is some research to say that glucocorticoids may affect olfaction in dogs (Ezeh et al. 1992). Consideration should be given when treating these dogs, to the risks and benefits of medications. Some dogs may have olfaction affected, and will need to be withdrawn from active duty while undergoing therapy. Veterinary staff can also offer to train SAR handlers in canine first aid.

Pet Dogs in Disasters

The human-animal bond is a powerful force, helping provide companionship for many individuals and creating positive impacts on mental and physical health. Current research has revealed that people are just as likely to suffer from depression from losing their pet, in a disaster, as they do from losing their home (Hunt M et al. 2008).

Veterinary clinics can aid clients in the preparation for a disaster. Being prepared is the best motto. Having a disaster plan is required to maintain calm. It has been shown that micro-chipping of pets is important in the ability to re-unite pets with owners. In Christchurch, 80% of stray pets that were micro-chipped were re-united with their owners. Historically, pets have not been allowed in shelters or evacuation areas, although the emergency management sector now realises the importance of including pets in human welfare plans. Owners need to establish an evacuation plan before a disaster which includes places they can stay that will allow their pets, such as animal boarding facilities, pet friendly motels, family and friends outside of the area. Owners cannot rely on government departments or animal welfare organisations to set up such facilities, as resources may simply not be available.

A pet disaster kit should be assembled that includes the pet's usual food and a supply of drinking water. It is important that owners have at least a week's supply of their pet's usual medication. The kit should include instructions for the care and medication of the pet in case the owner is not able to accompany the pet. Vaccination and microchipping certificates should be included in the kit as this information will be required if a pet shelter is established. Check lists for emergency kits and disaster plans can be found here: or [VIN editor: original link not found Feb 2013; alternative given]

The veterinary business must also have an emergency plan. All businesses should have a business continuity plan to enable to continue to offer services, which may be somewhat limited, to their clients and the general public. From a New Zealand perspective, the businesses which had established business continuity plans before the Christchurch earthquakes were able to return to some level of business function faster and did not have as a significant loss to business as did the companies who failed to plan.

Planning for animal welfare in disasters and ensuring clients are properly prepared is an essential part of the obligations of the veterinary profession to both animals and humans (Madigan, Dacre 2009).

Further Information

 New Zealand



1.  Ezeh PI, Myers LJ, Hanrahan LA, Kemppainen RJ, Cummins KA. Effects of steroids on the olfactory function of the dog. Physiology & Behavior 1992;51:1183–7. doi:10.1016/0031-9384(92)90306-m.

2.  Fox PR, Puschner B, Ebel JG. Assessment of acute injuries, exposure to environmental toxins, and five-year health surveillance of New York Police Department working dogs following the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center terrorist attack. JAVMA. 2008;233:48-59.doi:10.2460/javma.233.1.48.

3.  Gordon LE. Injuries and illnesses among urban search-and-rescue dogs deployed to Haiti following the January 12, 2010, earthquake. JAVMA. 2012;240:396–403.

4.  Jones KE, Dashfield K, Downend AB, Otto CM. Search-and-rescue dogs: an overview for veterinarians. JAVMA. 2004;225:854-60. doi:10.2460/javma.2004.225.854.


Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

Kate Hill
Centre for Service and Working Dog Health
Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences
Massey University
Palmerston North, New Zealand

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