By Dr. Becker
In the event of a disaster, what would happen to your pets? Too many of us neglect to think about this question until it’s too late. It’s unclear just how many pets are lost, injured, or killed during emergency situations, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that more than 600,000 cats and dogs were affected by natural disasters in the first half of 2011 alone.1
Making a plan now could literally save the life of your pet in the event of a disaster. As noted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA):2
“The likelihood that you and your animals will survive an emergency such as a fire or flood, tornado, or terrorist attack depends largely on emergency planning done today.”
The First Step: Have a Plan
Rule number one is this: if you’re evacuating your home, don’t leave your pets behind. They likely won’t be able to survive without you, or they may become lost and may not be there when you return.
If you’ll be evacuating to a shelter, not all of them allow animals, so seek out animal-friendly public shelters, or speak with friends or family outside of your immediate area who you and your pets could stay with for a short time if necessary.
Aside from deciding on where you’ll go with your pets, you’ll need to plan how your pets will be transported and what route you’ll take to your destination. Dogs can typically be transported with simply a leash and collar, but your cats should be in a secure carrier.
Birds, small mammals, and reptiles will need to be transported in their cages (snakes can be temporarily transported in a pillowcase, but will need to be transferred to a more hospitable habitat once you reach a secure location).
If you’ll be weathering the emergency at home, decide in advance where you’ll take shelter and how to round up and secure your pets alongside you. Dogs and cats should be separated or crated, as even those that normally get along may become anxious or aggressive during a disaster.
In the Event of a Fire… Or If You Have Farm Animals…
In the event of a fire, bring your pets with you as you evacuate, if possible. If not, leave the doors of your home open so your pets have a chance to find their way out. Then call your pet’s name. Hopefully he will hear your voice and make his way out to you.
Be persistent and loud… and don’t give up. It may take time for your pet to work up the courage to come to your voice. A rescue alert sticker, placed on a prominent door or window, can be used to alert rescue workers to the number and type of pets inside.
If you have farm animals and live in an area with tornados, you should typically let them out of the barn for their best chance of survival. As Bonnie Smith, a large animal veterinarian, told TuftsNow:3
“Whenever there’s going to be a chance of high winds and flying debris, let your animals out… Your instinct is to keep them inside and protected. But in the barn, they’re susceptible to anything blowing around because they are stuck in a stall.
If they’re outside, they can get themselves into the lowest spot and out of the wind. The animals know their pastures way better than we do because their whole life depends upon it.”
A back-up plan is also wise. In the event you can’t get back to your home, who will evacuate your pets? Speak with nearby friends and neighbors and develop a strategy to look out for each other’s pets in case one of you isn’t home at the time of an emergency.
That person will need a key or other means of access to your home, an idea of where to find your pet once inside, and he or she should also be comfortable handling your animal. Agree ahead of time on a location where you can meet to retrieve your pet or arrange for the person to provide temporary shelter.
Also be sure to practice your plan at least once a year so you’re ready to go and familiar with the routine if you ever need to use it.
Next: Build an Emergency Kit
Building an emergency kit ahead of time means you’ll be ready to grab it and go. Let all members of your family know where your kit is stored. The ASPCA recommends including the following items:4
Pet first-aid kit 3-7 days' worth of canned (pop-top) or dehydrated food (be sure to rotate every two months) Disposable litter trays (aluminum roasting pans are perfect) Litter or paper toweling Liquid dish soap and disinfectant Disposable garbage bags for clean-up Pet feeding dishes Extra collar or harness as well as an extra leash Photocopies of medical records and a waterproof container with a two-week supply of any medicine your pet requires (Remember, food and medications need to be rotated out of your emergency kit—otherwise they may go bad or become useless.) Bottled water, at least 7 days' worth for each person and pet (store in a cool, dry place and replace every two months) A traveling bag, crate, or sturdy carrier, ideally one for each pet Flashlight Blanket (for scooping up a fearful pet) Recent photos of your pets (in case you are separated and need to make "Lost" posters) Especially for cats: Pillowcase or Evacsak, toys, scoopable litter Especially for dogs: Extra leash, toys, and chew toys, a week's worth of cage liner.
Stay Informed and Be Ready
Follow weather reports closely so you know if your home is at risk and you’re not caught by surprise. Of course, disaster can strike anywhere at any time so planning ahead is crucial.
- Make sure your pet has an up-to-date ID tag at all times. Consider adding the name and phone number of a family member or friend who doesn’t live in your immediate area. If you’re not reachable, there’ll be someone at the other number who will be.
- Make a list of places that will shelter your pets in an emergency. This might include a hotel or motel in your area or the home of a family member or friend. Ideally you’ll want to keep your pet with you, but if you must separate temporarily, include on your list the addresses and phone numbers of any nearby veterinary offices and boarding kennels that could take your pet in an emergency, as well as the nearest animal shelter.
- Be prepared to evacuate sooner rather than later to secure lodging for you and your pet before hotels, motels, and other facilities fill up. If you wait until the last minute to leave your home, there’s a chance emergency evacuation personnel will require you to leave your pet behind.
- If you live in an apartment or other multi-family dwelling, make sure the people responsible for the security of your building know there is a pet in your unit.
How to Care for Your Pet After a Disaster
Your pet may need extra TLC following an emergency. Be sure to secure pets if your home or yard has been damaged, and be aware that flooding can bring in snakes or other dangerous animals that aren’t normally present outdoors. Your pet could also become disoriented or lost, so shouldn’t be left outdoors unattended.
Animals may also be traumatized by disasters, leading to changes in personality and behavior or even a type of post-traumatic stress disorder. You’ll want to keep a close eye on your pets and be patient as you all adjust to the circumstances. As your routine returns to normal, your pet likely will too, but if you notice behavioral changes that don’t resolve, talk to your veterinarian.
For more information, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has produced an excellent tool for detailed planning for both large and small animals in the event of a disaster. Download the AVMA’s Saving the Whole Family planning booklet to protect your pets now.