Recognising the vulnerable members of society in disasters

Thompson, K., Trigg, J., & Smith, B. (2016). Animal Ownership Among Vulnerable Populations in Regional South Australia: Implications for Natural Disaster Preparedness and Resilience. Journal of public health management and practice.

This study examines animal owners in Australia who are at risk or threatened by bushfires, with some of these households being defined as ‘disaster vulnerable’. The study reviews the species of animals that these owners keep and also compares each of the five vulnerable groups and the factors that motivate them to create a bushfire survival plan. 

Research has shown that owning pets can increase people’s preparedness and planning for disasters, however it can also complicate evacuation and relocation efforts. Additionally, some animal owners are more vulnerable to the impacts of disasters, and their needs for planning and response may be varied. These ‘disaster-vulnerable’ groups include linguistically diverse individuals, people with physical or mental health issues, and households with elderly adults (over 60 years old) or young children (under 4 years old).  

It is known that a relationship with animals can have a positive impact on the lives of these vulnerable groups, and so it could be assumed that they may be likely to own pets, however there is little data to support this.   Therefore, this research investigated, for the first time, the proportion of animal ownership within vulnerable groups of society, their perceived risk of danger and needs of their pets in disasters, and their provision of disaster action plans. The research was conducted in South Australia, within a bushfire disaster context, and included the ownership of pets and farm animals.

80% of ‘disaster-vulnerable’ people own animals

The results revealed that large numbers of vulnerable groups do indeed own animals, and that these are not always limited to traditional pets such as cats and dogs. A slightly higher proportion (80%) of ‘disaster-vulnerable’ people owned animals than non-vulnerable individuals (74%), and this was highest in households with mental care needs (where 90% kept animals), followed by households with physical health needs (where 86% kept animals). Additionally, although most people view their animals to be at low risk in disasters, the majority of animal owners who had survival plans included their animals in those. Specifically, all households with physically frail or disabled individuals included animals in survival plans, as did 89% of households with elderly occupants, 87% with mental health considerations, 76% with linguistically diverse individuals and 66% with young children.  The reasons for inclusion were predominantly due to wanting to protect and save their pets. This shows the importance of the animals in these people’s lives, and reiterates the ‘pet-as-protective-factor’ principle which recognises that animal ownership, particularly pets, may motivate vulnerable groups to prepare disaster plans.

The authors conclude that the relationship between vulnerable groups and their animals should be acknowledged by emergency services and officials, especially as each group has unique needs in disaster planning and response. Additionally, they provide some recommendations to ensure the needs of vulnerable groups are catered for. They suggest creating a database of vulnerable people, and their animals; providing educational material with information specifically designed for vulnerable animal owners; and helping people train their animals to be handled safely by strangers in case of emergencies.

World Animal Protection view

We believe that this study is extremely useful in highlighting the importance of the ‘pets as protective factor’ principle, and the different needs of disaster preparedness and response that community members need. With more research, the risks imposed to vulnerable groups by bushfires and other natural disasters can be reduced.