Resilience implies the ability to recover or ‘bounce back’ from threats or disasters. In planning for natural or man-made disasters, resilience has tended to focus at the level of a population or community. In particular, building the resilience of geographically isolated communities.
However, isolation can also exist within urban communities. Through lack of connectedness with others, vulnerable individuals within a community can become socially isolated. Vulnerable individuals may include; the elderly, people affected by a mental illness or drug dependencies, refugees, indigenous people, women, single parents, people with disabilities, and the homeless. Though socially isolated and vulnerable individuals may possess the skills to function on a day-to-day basis, they may lack the resilience to cope with a crisis situation. Where connectedness to others within a community may be lacking, the support people feel from pets can strengthen the emotional resilience of socially isolated individuals.1
Current evacuation and emergency protocols focus predominantly on the preservation of human life and critical infrastructure. The impact that emergencies have on the psychological well-being of people is a secondary concern, and the complex social and psychological needs of vulnerable individuals are often overlooked. Existing protocols and procedures are designed for people who have connections within their community and can respond to instruction—applying these protocols to vulnerable or socially isolated people might not be successful, and there is a need to make protocols more flexible and inclusive to enhance cooperation and reduce trauma. For example, in an emergency setting, owners may be encouraged, or forced to leave pets behind. For socially isolated and vulnerable individuals, this may perpetuate psychological trauma and overwhelm already fragile coping abilities. Allowing people to evacuate alongside their pets can reduce distress and provide an alternative focus, thus acting as a distractor or ‘normalizer’ during a crisis situation. This may promote a transition from reactionary behaviour to a more considered response to the situation.
Vulnerable individuals may be clients of veterinary practices due to pet ownership. Therefore, veterinary professionals have a unique opportunity to use a shared love of animals to connect with and advocate for the needs of vulnerable and socially isolated individuals during crisis situations. Additionally, as vulnerable people cannot always express their emotional needs, innovative engagement strategies are required to ensure these people retain a sense of connection.2
Breaking Down the Barriers
Pets can provide more than direct companionship for their owner. Pets can act as ‘icebreakers’ in a social setting. This is an incredibly valuable tool to help vulnerable individuals establish social connections within their community. Importantly, for socially isolated individuals, this ‘pet-related’ connection can translate into new sources of social support.
It is this safe target of conversation that can also be used to bond with socially isolated people during disaster events. Veterinary professionals can make a significant contribution to inclusiveness of socially isolated people. Ways that veterinary professionals can help during a crisis include; ‘checking-in’ on vulnerable clients, offering the veterinary practice as a ‘safe-haven’ where possible, and providing support in human welfare centres as a friendly face to talk to.
A Shifting Paradigm
In a recent paper outlining the roles of animal attachment on disaster resilience of vulnerable groups, Thompson and colleagues explained: “An emerging body of evidence recognises that animal attachment can pose a risk to human safety in disasters and that, conversely, animal attachment can be leveraged within community engagement strategies to increase disaster preparedness.”2 To put this more simply, pets can play a positive or negative role during disaster management. As policy influencers and first responders, we could swing the balance from negative to positive. This is a paradigm shift for emergency management and veterinary professionals. Re-working the ‘status quo’ will require considerable fore-sight and a multi-discipline approach to develop innovative ways on how to motivate animal owners to be prepared for disasters.
Many human welfare centres will not accept pets during an emergency situation. Unfortunately, ill-preparedness by the general public for a disaster event will lead to an unnecessarily large proportion of the community seeking refuge in welfare centres. This could mean leaving pets behind, resulting in pet owner distress and significant animal welfare issues. For example, in New Zealand, a country which has various hazards such as volcanoes, earthquakes, wildfires and severe weather events, only 14% of the population are fully prepared.3 The best-case scenario is to keep people with their pets. This is achievable through greater education and preparedness of communities. There are on-going efforts in some countries to create pet-friendly emergency welfare centres. However, further work is required for this to become a standard consideration during disaster planning. The veterinary profession needs to take a proactive approach to ensure local council and government bodies recognize the importance of preparing pet-owners for emergencies, and in establishing more consistent supply of pet-friendly welfare shelters.
The Recovery Phase—an Additional Challenge
During the recovery phase communities may become fragmented and social support networks may be lost. The number of socially isolated or vulnerable people may rise. During this time, people who have lost their homes will be transitioning from emergency accommodation arrangements to temporary accommodation. In many instances due to housing shortages, the stock of available accommodation is insufficient, and finding accommodation that allows for pets may be even more of a challenge.
It is during this time that displaced people need as much psychosocial assistance as possible due to secondary trauma caused by the accumulative effect of additional stressors during the recovery efforts.4 Dealing with insurance companies, banks, councils and builders can cause a significant amount of stress even more so than the actual event, hence why it is called the secondary trauma. Additionally, the event has long gone from media attention, and this can further compound the isolation felt due to still being in the disaster, and everyone else has moved on.
There are several ways that veterinary professionals can help during the recovery phase. Firstly, continuing to advocate for pets to stay with their owners where possible. Secondly, accepting donations (pay-it-forward) to assist with care of patients whose clients are no longer able to afford veterinary care. Thirdly prevention of transmissible diseases following a disaster (e.g., leptospirosis vaccination of dogs following flooding) and finally, discounted microchipping of unchipped pets to enable identification of pets should they go missing in the disruption following a natural disaster. In addition, veterinarians should observe clients for signs of mental health issues or distress, and know what services are should there be concerns about client well-being.
Following a disaster, local government or support agencies may hand out welcome home packs to homeowners when they return to rebuilt or repaired homes. This is an opportunity for the veterinary profession to show community support through contribution to such packs. The most helpful addition to such a pack would be advice regarding pet care following a disaster event (e.g., dealing with pet behavioural issues following a disaster).
The veterinary profession has a unique opportunity for communicating and motivating vulnerable people to engage in resilience building behaviors that promote survival and facilitate recovery from a disaster. Veterinary professionals can offer a safe-haven for animal owners during a disaster event, and can advocate for keeping people with their pets. Additionally, veterinarians can participate in outreach programmes during the recovery phase, and advise on animal-welfare impacts following a disaster.
1. Friedmann E, Heesook S. The human-companion animal bond: How humans benefit. Vet Clin Small Anim. 2009;39:293–326.
2. Thompson K, Every D, Rainbird S, Cornell V, Smith B, Trigg J. (2014) No Pet or Their Person Left Behind: Increasing the Disaster Resilience of Vulnerable Groups through Animal Attachment, Activities and Networks, Animals 2014, 4, 214–240https://www.civildefence.govt.nz/cdem-sector/public-education/research-and-evaluation/get-ready-get-thru-campaign-evaluation/. 2014. Accessed April 2018.
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