Fills Shelters at the Worst Possible Time, Avoid This Mistake to Save Your Pet

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog shelter

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you often wonder, after a natural disaster, what you can do to help displaced pets, there are several items almost every animal shelter needs to prepare for such events, including crates, towels, blankets and pet toys
  • It’s also important for pet parents to have a disaster preparedness plan that includes each animal companion in the household
  • In the event you must evacuate your home, please don’t even consider leaving your pets behind
  • Additional preparedness tips include having a pet first aid kit ready to go, keeping your pet’s ID tag up-to-date and having a plan in place in case you’re not home when disaster strikes

Natural disasters are a fact of life, and 2018 was extraordinary in terms of both the number and variety of catastrophes that occurred across the globe, including wildfires, mudslides, windstorms, earthquakes, cyclones, dust storms, tropical storms, erupting volcanoes, floods, typhoons, hurricanes and tsunamis.

In the U.S. and other countries as well, local animal shelters — both permanent and emergency “pop-up” facilities — are invariably overwhelmed when disaster strikes a particular area. Shelter staffs and volunteers run themselves ragged caring not only for their usual population of homeless animals, but also for the influx of pets that are abandoned or get separated from their families in the aftermath of a disaster.

Animal lovers everywhere also step up after such catastrophes to volunteer their time, money, supplies and temporary foster homes. Our help is always needed and appreciated — and not just in the aftermath of a hurricane or wildfire. Many people don’t realize there are certain types of donations animal shelters desperately need in order to be prepared for impending natural disasters.

Shelter Donations That Make the Biggest Difference When Disaster Strikes

PetMD talked with animal welfare and shelter organizations and came up with the following list of must-haves for emergencies:1

  1. Crates — Preferably the large wire kind, but any crate will do if you happen to have extras available.
  2. Blankets and towels — Regular, plain old towels and blankets are best; comforters don’t work well because they get shredded and the stuffing may get eaten.
  3. Pet food — Especially if you’re planning to go out and buy pet food or order it for delivery, it’s best to call the shelter staff first to find out what foods they prefer.
  4. Pet toys — Toys can be ideal for traumatized pets who need distractions and something to focus on. Again, it’s a good idea to call the shelter to find out what types of toys would be most helpful.
  5. Money — Even the smallest donation will be appreciated and can be put to immediate use to buy exactly the supplies the shelter most needs, as well as to offset veterinary costs.
  6. Time — Volunteering your time is a great way to make a direct impact on the lives of shelter animals during and after a disaster, and the way to add the most benefit is to volunteer now — today — so you’re trained and ready to go when you’re needed most. Call your local shelter to see what classes or programs you should take so you can volunteer on the front lines in the event of a disaster.

Will You and Your Pet Be Prepared in the Event of a Natural Disaster?

Emergency preparedness isn’t something many pet parents give a lot of thought to, probably 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.

Companion animals left behind in a disaster can die quickly by drowning or fire, or they can die slow, excruciating deaths confined in a condemned home, tied up in a backyard or waiting inside an apartment for an owner who may or may not be returning.

If they’re able to escape confinement, they often 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.

In additional, there’s the terrible sense of loss and grief pet parents experience when they don’t know what’s become of a beloved family pet left behind.

Make a Disaster Preparedness Plan That Includes Your Pet(s)

Just as animal shelters must prepare for the worst, so should pet parents. The time to make a plan is now. 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, do not leave your pets behind. They may not be able to survive without you, or they may wander off in search of you, and meet a tragic fate.

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 your immediate area who you and your pets can 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 often be transported with simply a leash and harness or collar, but cats should be in a 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 riding out the emergency in your 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 pets who normally get along may become anxious or aggressive during a disaster.

Additional 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:2

Pet first aid kid

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 two 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 ensure 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 pet 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) provides 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.

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