Your local veterinarian may very well be part of a new national reserve, mustering now to help animals in distress.

Since November, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have been taking big steps toward establishing the first Canadian Veterinary Reserve. As envisioned, the reserve will be a central resource where Canadian veterinarians can provide their services and resources in an emergency.

The reserve will comprise veterinarians mostly from private practice who are available and trained to respond to major disease outbreaks or disaster situations affecting the health or well-being of animals.

Training wrapped up recently in Winnipeg, at the federal high-security laboratory, for the first 38 reservists. They're among the 400 who've stepped forward since the program's launch.

Among the legion are many graduates from the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. So, it makes some sense the college's past dean, Alan Meek, is representing Canada's four veterinary schools on the reserve's advisory board.

Officials are pushing hard to get the reserve in place as soon as they can. Like the rest of us, they're acutely aware that animal-related disasters are already among us.

They too see the painful images of animals — and their owners — from across Canada and elsewhere associated with toxic pet food, which seems to just get more widespread, and worse.

They remember the heart-wrenching pictures of abandoned, lost or homeless pets from hurricane Katrina.

They've seen photos and footage from Europe and Asia of poultry being euthanized because of bird flu.

And they're still haunted, six years later, by the images of nighttime pyres ablaze across rural Great Britain, heaping with livestock sacrificed because of foot and mouth disease.

These aren't animal-related problems that might possibly occur. They already have.

Other countries, such as the United States, Australia and Great Britain, have veterinary reserves in place. We don't. But as a significant live-animal importer, exporter and producer, we should.

Some, like Canadian Veterinary Medical Association senior adviser of veterinary affairs Gordon Dittberner, say we need a North American approach at the very least, if not a global approach, to major animal health issues.

That doesn't mean trucking a squad of veterinarians to all corners of the continent when a problem occurs. Rather, it could mean promoting intelligence about veterinary care through the reservists' network when health crises such as the pet food problem arise. A lot of people think that matter could have been dealt with more efficiently if a network existed and information was more quickly shared.

But the Canadian Veterinary Reserve is more than a virtual information hotline, or website. In true reservist fashion, being a member of this trained team could indeed entail an emergency, spur of the moment trip anywhere across Canada, for as long as three weeks. The reservists, who will be paid about $300 a day, could be called at any time to assist the food inspection agency in responding to an animal disease outbreak or a disaster where animals are affected.

Dittberner says it's now recognized that in emergencies where people are being evacuated, their animals — both livestock and companion animals — must be simultaneously evacuated. He says that for some reason, the human-animal bond has never been stronger. And as was seen repeatedly with hurricane Katrina, people will forsake their own safety rather than abandon their pets, which may be their only loyal and lifetime companions.

In that light, says Dittberner, veterinarians are seizing the opportunity to provide a service to society in times of need, and especially to fulfil their dedication to animals suffering during crisis. He thinks that's why recruiting efforts have been so successful.

For his part, Meek agrees the veterinarians who have signed up for the reserve are motivated by compassion. "It sounds simplistic, and maybe even a bit corny," he says, "but in fact, it's true. They really are doing this because they care."

Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.