By Dr. Becker
Today is National Animal Disaster Preparedness Day according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA),1 and an excellent opportunity for all of us with animal companions at home to make sure we'll be ready to provide for our pets in the event of a disaster.
Unfortunately, emergency preparedness isn't something many pet parents give a lot of thought to, probably because it's awful to think about, and also because we tend to believe "It will never happen to me."
Sadly, only those who've actually lost a beloved pet in a catastrophic event truly understand how crucial planning and preparation can be.
Fate of Pets When Disaster Strikes
Examples of large-scale disasters include hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, wildfires, building fires, airplane crashes, terror attacks and other devastating events both natural and man-made.
In one of the most memorable disasters in recent history, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, an estimated 250,000 companion animals died or were displaced.2
Companion animals left behind in a disaster can die quickly by drowning or fire, or they can die slow, agonizing deaths confined in a condemned home, tied up in a backyard or waiting inside an apartment for an owner who won't be returning.
If they are able to escape confinement, they wander the streets looking for water, food and shelter, and can ultimately succumb to dehydration, starvation or disease.
Pets lucky enough to be rescued can be deeply traumatized by what they've been through, and exhibit stress-related behaviors that make rehoming difficult. And, of course, there's also the terrible sense of loss and grief pet parents feel when they don't know what's become of a beloved family pet left behind.
How Prepared Are You to Keep Your Pet Safe in an Emergency?
The time to think about it is now. If you've never experienced a natural or man-made disaster that has driven you from your home, you might feel as though "it will never happen to me." But as survivors of these events know all too well, disaster can strike anywhere, at any time.
Just a bit of preparation can mean the difference between life and death for all the members of your household. Rule No. 1: 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.
It's also a good idea to keep a list of pet-friendly hotels in case you can't find a shelter that accepts animals. Also talk with animal shelters and veterinarians in the area to find out if they board pets in emergency situations.
In addition to deciding where you'll go with your pets, you'll need to plan how they'll be transported and what route you'll take to your destination. Dogs can typically be transported with simply a leash and collar, but cats should be in a secure carrier.
Birds, small mammals, and reptiles will need to travel 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.
Additional Disaster Preparedness Tips
• Prepare a pet emergency kit. Pack a to-go emergency kit for your pet. Let everyone in the household know where the kit is stored, and be sure to check it once or twice a year and replace expired items. The ASPCA suggests including the following items in your kit:3
✓ Pet first aid kit
✓ Disposable garbage bags
✓ Three-to-seven day supply of canned (pop-top), dehydrated or freeze dried food (be sure to use and replace about every month months)
✓ Photocopies and/or USB of your pet's medical records and a waterproof container with a two-week supply of any medicine your pet requires (remember to use and replace medications before they expire)
✓ At least a seven-day supply of bottled water for each person and pet (store in a cool, dry place and replace every two months)
✓ Disposable litter trays
✓ Extra collar or harness and leash
✓ Traveling bag, crate or carrier for each pet
✓ Litter or paper towels
✓ Recent photos of your pets (in case you get separated and need to create flyers to post)
✓ Liquid dish soap and disinfectant
✓ Pet food and water bowls
✓ Blankets (and pillowcases for cats)
• Keep your pet's ID updated. Be sure the information connected to your pet's microchip, if she has one, is current. Also insure the information on your pet's collar or ID tag is accurate so you can be located in the event you become separated from your pet.
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.
• Create a plan in the event you're not home when disaster strikes. If you can't get back to your home, who will care for 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 in 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.
• Display rescue alert stickers. A rescue alert sticker, placed in full view on a front door or window (or wherever the main access to your home is), can be used to alert rescue workers to the number and type of pets inside. Include your pet's name and your phone number so you can be easily contacted. If you evacuate your home with your pets, write "evacuated" on the rescue sticker so emergency responders know everyone is accounted for, including your pets.
• Keep a photo of your pet handy. If your pet gets lost, a photo can be invaluable in bringing her home. Be sure the photo is current (within the last year at least), and keep a copy in your wallet or purse as well as in your emergency kit.
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.
After the Crisis Has Passed
Depending on what type of emergency you and your pet have survived, your animal companion may need some extra care and attention in the days and weeks following the event. If you're returning home to significant damage and disorder after a tornado or flood, don't let your pets wander loose. There might be dangers lurking in this new environment, and your pet could also become disoriented or lost.
Be prepared for possible behavioral problems with your pet as you both adjust to a "new normal." Animals can acquire stress-related conditions just like people do, including a type of post-traumatic stress disorder. If your pet is behaving differently after an evacuation or other emergency, be patient with him. If the problem doesn't subside with time, a return to routine and some extra loving attention on your part, consult your veterinarian.
Pay It Forward With Donations to Your Local Animal Shelter
During and after natural disasters, animal shelters are always in need of certain types of supplies, including:
✓ Crates (large, wired crates are preferred)
✓ Blankets and towels (skip comforters, since they tend to get shredded and sometimes the stuffing gets eaten)
✓ Pet food (call and ask if there's a preferred brand)
✓ Pet toys
Make sure to call your local shelter to see what specific items they need.