Preparedness urged for Australian bushfire, cyclone season

Experts advise reviewing insurance coverage, readying for evacuation

October 6, 2011 (published)
By Phyllis DeGioia

The threat of fires like this 2009 blaze that charred a forest in Heathcote, Victoria, have veterinarians in Australia on high alert.
Photo: Getty Images

Voluminous vegetation growth fed by abundant rainfall in Australia could fuel more bushfires than usual this summer, a prospect that's prompted veterinarians to urge animal owners to be prepared.

“The Bureau of Meteorology is already warning of a record bushfire season due to the huge rains that have allowed vegetation to flourish,” said Dr. Alex Burleigh in a written statement from the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA). “And in the northern part of the country the predicted La Nina weather system may once again bring record rains and floods.”

Last season’s significant flooding left many house pets, horses and livestock stranded, injured and worse. In January, Dr. Bob Doneley of the University of Queensland cared for numerous wounded and lost pets in Grantham despite being without power and running water.

After enduring that massive flood, Doneley has a hard-won bit of advice for veterinarians:

“Veterinary practice owners should review their insurance policies, and not just assume they’re covered,” he said in an interview by email with the VIN News Service.

“The Australian insurance companies turned out to have a wide range of definitions for different flooding, and used this as a loophole to avoid paying out,” Doneley said. “Many eventually did, under public pressure, but some business and home owners found themselves uninsured. I suppose the moral is: The insurance companies are not your friends.”

Doneley knew of three practices that were affected by last year’s flood, and each had a different outcome. One, located in the Lockyer Valley, was closed and abandoned; the building remains vacant and the veterinarian moved away. The second, also in the Lockyer Valley, suffered relatively mild damage and is fully operational again. 

The third, a practice in Brisbane that was inundated, has not fully recovered yet. The owner operated out of another veterinarian’s practice for six months, and recently moved into his own new premises. Doneley said that veterinarian suffered a major financial hit when he discovered his insurance didn’t cover that type of flooding. 

For pet owners, Doneley’s advice is basic but often unheeded: Microchip your pets and get them registered on a national database.

“The biggest problem we had after the floods was reuniting animals and owners, as only one dog out of the all the animals we saw that week was chipped – he was reunited with his owners within hours,” Doneley said. “The other animals took days and weeks to find out who they were.” 

Doneley’s microchip recommendation is echoed in the United States by the Joplin Humane Society in Missouri, which learned a hard lesson about the benefits of microchips after an EF-5 tornado destroyed half the town in May. The vast majority of displaced pets did not have chips, making it difficult for rescuers to find many animals' owners.

While few horses are microchipped, they, too, can be chipped to aid in identification. Displaced horses may be stolen and sent to auction, adding another potential nightmare to the struggle to recover from natural disasters. In upstate New York, 22 thoroughbreds were missing and presumably swept away by floodwaters caused by Hurricane Irene in late August.

After experiencing a natural disaster, Doneley said, his personal perspective is different.

“I have a greater faith in people to help each other in times of crisis,” he said. “The most unlikely people will surprise you when the chips are down. I have more patience with things outside my control – we still have roadworks going on repairing the flood damage. No point in getting upset about things — just grin and bear it.”

The AVA urges pet and livestock owners to prepare disaster evacuation plans for their animals now, while things are calm. Events such as bushfires, cyclones and floods can be traumatic for pets and livestock as well as for people, and planning ahead can reduce the strain for all concerned. 

“For all of these events you need to decide if you’re going to evacuate or stay at home," said the AVA's Burleigh. "If you decide to stay at home, think about confining pets to the safest enclosed room of the house, such as the bathroom."

He advises putting together an emergency kit with plenty of non-perishable food and water in spill-proof containers. If using canned foods, use cans with pop-top lids or include a can opener. And be prepared for the possibility of lengthy disruptions in services such as power, water and telephone.

The AVA encourages residents in areas most likely to experience natural disasters to speak with their veterinarians about how best to prepare for the safety of their animals. The AVA also offers information for owners of house pets, horses and livestock on how to help protect animals and reduce personal-safety risks in cyclones and floods.

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