I can't speak for every single animal hospital in America, nor for ANY outside of America... but I'm a part of several vet tech forums on Facebook and recently, someone raised the question asking what everyone's fire evacuation protocols were.
This question was answered by over 100 people from different clinics in different states. Some were corporate, some were private, some were specialty... and the answers were all essentially the same.
If you are physically holding an animal at the time that the alarm goes off, you may take that animal with you but your only priority is to get yourself out. Animals in kennels are not to be taken out.
If there's an actual fire in the building, firefighters can't start fighting the fire until all humans in the building are accounted for. They can rescue the animals in time if and only if the humans get out. Until the humans are out, their priority is them.
But most people in the veterinary industry will absolutely break protocol and save as many as they can.
I treat my patients the way I'd want my pets treated and to me... leaving an animal behind is not part of my protocol and that's the protocol I will follow.
The no kennel opened guideline means that often, large dogs and cats are the ones left behind. Large dogs need to be leashed. This takes extra time.
Cats need to be placed in their carriers and are not always quick to be taken out. This takes extra time.
To break protocol to get these animals is to put your life at risk, which is exactly why these protocols are in place. Human life is valued over animal life. Even inside a building that exists only to help animals.
To my mind, that is hypocrisy and I won't do it. I have a large dog. I have five cats. One of whom is blind.
Because I am a vet tech, my pets are treated with me there.
Because of Covid rules that are still in place at many veterinary offices across the country, most pet parents don't get that same ability. At my hospital, we still do not allow our human clients into the exam rooms with their pets, whether they're being dropped off or not. The rooms are simply too small for proper social distancing and while ALL of us are vaccinated, we can't be sure our clients are.
Because of this, our clients have a tendency to wander away. Even if they're not dropping their pet off to stay with us for the day, they will go get lunch or go shopping in the plaza our hospital is located in and then we can't find them right away when their pet's exam is concluded. Once your pet is finished, if you're not there to take them home immediately, they will be put into a kennel so that we can see the next patient.
Be there when your pet is finished so that should something happen, you're there to get them out yourself.
While the vast majority of veterinarians, vet techs, vet assistants and receptionists will absolutely break protocol and save as many animals as they can, animal hospitals are currently vastly understaffed. Which means once we're outside, we won't be allowed back in, and there simply may not be enough of us to get every animal.
If your pet is being seen for something non-surgical and you don't have to drop them off and leave them for the day, don't. I'm fully aware that people have jobs and they can't just take off from work at the drop of a hat because their pet is ill or injured and needs vet care. Responsible pet parents get their animal care as soon as they need it, not as soon as they have time to fit it into their schedules so sometimes drop offs are unavoidable and I'm not at all shaming anyone for that. But the fact remains that the fewer drop offs we have, the more animals we can get out in case of emergency.
So if you can avoid it, avoid it. If you can't, that's okay because the ones that CAN and DO will leave us free to help your pets.
Something to remember:
A lot of veterinary professionals bring their personal pets to work. I don't because my husband works remotely from home so they're never alone all day. However, people who work in my field work extremely long hours and if they're the sole care-taker of their fur babies, they will often bring them to work so they're not sitting home alone.
Even when they don't bring their pets to work on a regular basis, if their pets need a check up or vaccines or they're sick, they will bring them to work to be seen. I mean, how many of you go to your jobs on your days off voluntarily?
My dog was a shelter dog so keeping her in a kennel while I work all day just so she can get her biannual check up is something I won't do to her. My cats don't like the litter that my hospital uses (pellet litter, my cats are used to sand litter) and will refuse to go to the bathroom all day if I keep them there. That's very unhealthy for them so I bring my animals for the vet care on my days off. I only get one day off a week where my hospital is open. We're closed Sundays so one of my days off every week is automatically Sunday. If my pets are sick or injured, sometimes bringing them to work is my only option.
Ask yourself something... if your pets are in a building that is on fire and so are pets belonging to strangers... who are you saving first? Your own... or the strangers'?
We will absolutely try our very best to save them all. But sometimes having only two hands each makes that impossible. I try my best to get the ones typically left behind. That means there will be a cat carrier in one hand and a leash holding a large dog in the other. If the large dog isn't marked as dog aggressive, I will also grab a small dog that I can carry under the elbow of one of my arms.
Dog aggressive dogs should NEVER be left at the vet as a drop off unless they're having surgery or it can otherwise absolutely not be avoided. It creates a dangerous situation, and not just in terms of our evacuation protocols.
Fires are the vet are not exactly common so this isn't something you should be constantly worried about. The only reason I'm writing about it is because there are ways for you to ensure that our drop off count is lower and therefore the pets on hand are more likely to survive should the worst occur.
Though I will say this... oxygen tanks are present and open for surgery and if we have to do an ear swab cytology, burning the slide is one of the steps in that test. Open flame and open oxygen.
It's not common but it's not impossible.
My goal here is not to make you fearful of your vet's office nor make you think you can never leave your pets there. It's like leaving your kids at daycare or school. You have the full expectation that they're in safe hands that will care for them.
But the difference between children and animals is that a child's life is seen as equal to that of their teacher. An animal's is not. And protocol will dictate that we leave them behind to save ourselves.
Most of us won't. I keep repeating that because I want you to understand how much your pets mean to us. We will risk our lives for theirs. But I decided to write this after seeing the responses to the question in the Facebook forum because just like when those oxygen masks drop on an airplane, you have to make sure you are safe before you can help anyone else. Fire alarms are LOUD and they frighten animals. Getting them out is not always as simple as grabbing them from a kennel, sticking them in carriers/ attaching a leash and running. They may feel safer in their kennels and refuse to move putting the life of the person trying to get them out in danger.
So like I said, if you can avoid drop-offs and minimize the number of animals present, please do so. If you're not dropping off and your pet will be yours again after their exam is complete, do not leave.
Sometimes we're behind and the exam takes longer than you anticipated. And you get bored. Or you have your kids with you and they get bored.
Do. Not. Leave.
While this piece is mainly geared towards vet protocols, there is something else I want to touch on here.
What Are YOUR Evacuation Protocols For Multi-Pet Homes?
It's no secret (as I write about them constantly) that in my home there are two humans and seven animals.
A large dog, five cats and a chinchilla. The chinchilla is confined to a cage and does not necessarily leave that cage willingly. I have him trained to jump on my shoulder on command, however he's moody and sometimes just smacks me instead.
How do two people save seven animals when that means 6 carriers and a leash plus possibly attempting to negotiate with a pissed off rodent?
A few years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night to my phone blaring an alarm because there was a tornado in the area. The alert was telling me to get somewhere safe. My husband, who could sleep through an earthquake or a tsunami or pretty much anything, didn't even wake up. At the time, I had three cats and one dog. No chinchillas.
My first thought was my animals.
In our old apartment, where we lived at the time, the hallway was blocked off from all windows and doors and had a closet in it. I decided to put the cats in the closet. Once they were safe, I'd wake my husband and get him, the dog and myself into the hallway as well.
It was like a scene out of a comedy movie. I'd put in one cat, close the door, grab another cat and as soon as I opened the door to put in the next cat, the first would run off. After about 12 tries, my phone was blaring again. The storm had passed.
We all survived but it made me realize we needed a PLAN. We have one for hurricanes, living in South Florida, but for those you get a lot of warning time. Something that happens quickly needs to have a plan in place to make sure everyone survives.
This feeling only intensified after we lost Tom in the way that we did.
For the entire week following his death, I would wake up in the middle of the night covered in sweat, swearing I smelled smoke and plotting in my head how to get my animals to safety.
Cats do not like their cat carriers for one simple reason. The only time they're put in them, they are taken somewhere they don't want to go. So our carriers are ALWAYS out.
If the only time you take out your cat carriers is when you plan to use them, it's a signal for the cat to run and hide. If the carriers are always just a part of the scenery in their living space, they never know when they might be scooped up and placed in one. They don't run. They don't hide. They don't see it coming.
This may sound cruel but in the event of an emergency that we have to get them out quickly, it will save their lives. We have 8 different carriers. One is big enough to hold two cats. Our youngest two, would be placed in that immediately. They'd be first because one runs 30 mph (not an exaggeration, she's an Egyptian Mau, look up how fast they run) and the other is blind. In the event that we didn't have time to get ALL of our cats into carriers, they'd be the most likely to get lost if we had no choice but to open the doors and let them just escape.
Our two older cats won't wander. So they'd go last. If we had to let them outside and worry about scooping them up once we were out there, we'd be able to get them easily. So once the two youngest were secured in a carrier, I would go get the chinchilla into his carrier (which is always right beside his cage) and my husband would leash the dog. Once they were secured we'd get our middle cat, Ember, into her carrier. She doesn't fight us on it so she's easy to secure quickly. Lastly, if there was still time, the older two would be in carriers. As all of this was happening, they would be being brought outside by whichever one of us wasn't securing an animal at the time and put directly into my car to allow the other person to come back for more.
We have had workers come to the house earlier than we'd expected and had to secure all of our animals quickly to let the workers inside. Because they'd be coming in and out and the door would be left open at times, all cats had to be in carriers so they wouldn't dart. The dog is protective of her house so she needs to be in a pen to keep the workers from being snarled at (she's never bitten anyone and I don't think she would but it's not a chance that I take with her, ever). This means we've had practice getting the cats and the dog secured quickly.
We were able to get all of them secured in a matter of under two minutes.
Add in the chinchilla and it's something we actually HAVE to practice to make sure all of our animals survive anything that happens.
I highly recommend that you do the same. Run your own drills. Practice how to get your pets out quickly and safely should something happen.
It seems morbid but think about it... schools and work places run drills. Why do you think they do that?
To make sure everyone survives.
Why wouldn't you do the same in your own home?
If you have multiple animals and children, you really need a practice run or two. You need a plan in place. You need to know exactly what you'd do should something happen. Never leave it up to your adrenaline in the heat of a terrifying moment to figure out something you're not prepared for.
As for the protocols at the vet, believe me I understand how awful it sounds that we're actually instructed NOT to save your pets.
We don't follow it, that's the good news.
And once we're out, firefighters are definitely aware that there are animals in the building and outfitted with the proper equipment to be in there safer than those of us only in scrubs... they will make your pets a priority. We will be outside screaming at them to ensure that fact, trust and believe that.
Again, I want to stress that fires in animal hospitals are RARE. In the event of natural disasters, we're usually closed if we get a warning. If we don't get a warning, we will do everything we can for your pets. That I promise you as a vet tech. Protocols be damned, we wouldn't be there if we didn't love animals and NONE of us are afraid to be bitten or clawed by a terrified animal if it means they survive the day. That happens to us daily anyway and we're more than prepared to let it be part of our lives. We bleed for a living, it's who we are.
You have the power to make the situation less dire by not dropping off unless you have absolutely no choice but to do so, and by not wandering away during your pets' exams. My goal in writing this is to show you why that's important.
I don't want to die to save your pet. But I'm willing to risk it if I have to. Make sure I don't have to.