Preparing for Your Pets When Calamity Calls

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet disaster preparedness

Story at-a-glance -

  • In every area of the U.S., there are many ways disasters like floods, hurricanes, fires, tornadoes and earthquakes can strike that can threaten the safety of you and your family, including your pets
  • Depending on the situation, having the right supplies in place to grab and go is crucial if you’re forced to leave home, especially when every second counts
  • Before a disaster strikes, helping to desensitize your pet to equipment they’re not used to, such as life preservers, pet carriers, seat belts and muzzles, may not only make evacuation less stressful, but save lives
  • Find out if temporary pet shelters are designated in your area, designate a meet-up place for family members, and make sure everyone knows how to get pets and needed supplies to the designated spot if an emergency event takes place

If you live in an area where the likelihood of a catastrophic event occurring seems unlikely, keep in mind that emergency plans put in place by savvy individuals undoubtedly save thousands of people — as well as their pets — because there are many ways disaster can strike, and tropical storms, earthquakes, floods, tornados, fires and mudslides strike with little warning.

Unprecedented disasters have occurred in numerous places across the U.S. Mt. Kilauea erupted on Hawaii’s largest island in 2018, releasing debilitating gases in the lava, closely followed by an earthquake measuring 4.4 on the Richter scale.1

Three months later Tropical Storm Lane swept into the island, escorted by more than 51 inches of rain, which then touched off mudslides. The series of disasters destroyed homes and displaced at least 1,700 people, as well as their pets. It’s not only tropical storms that can cause flooding. Flooding from heavy rainfall raged down the streets of historic Ellicott City, Maryland, 30 minutes west of Baltimore, in both 2016 and 2018, and human lives were lost both times.2

Residents said the water rose and “burst” in to houses and businesses, rising from ankle deep to waist deep in minutes. In the panic that ensues in such life-threatening disasters, pets, unfortunately, are often left to fend for themselves.

Preparing a ‘Bug-Out Bag’ for Your Pets

Having a plan in place can make all the difference when responding to an emergency that requires you to leave your home, especially on short notice. If you own a pet, being ready for anything means preparing for their well-being as well as for your human family members.

Just in case, something as simple as helping to desensitize your pet to equipment they’re not used to, such as life preservers, pet carriers, seat belts and muzzles, could not only make evacuation less stressful, but save lives when every second counts. Here are some tips from The Bark3 to help you proactively prepare in case you ever need to “bug out” with your pets:

1. Are temporary pet shelters available near you? One of the first things to determine (which might be influenced by the disaster itself) is whether you can keep your pet with you, as shelters designed for humans only accept service animals. One thing you can do is find out if your area already has designated sites where temporary animal shelters will be set up.

2. Prepare a “bug-out” stash for your pet. Anyone who happens to be home when an emergency arises should be able to quickly access the “bug-out” supplies needed both for themselves as well as their pets. Ideally, such items should already be packed and ready to go.

The Bark4 suggests taking one gallon of water per day for each medium- or large-sized dog, an airtight container with enough food to last as long as might be necessary, whether it’s three days or two weeks, and a manual can opener (if needed).

Besides any pet medications, include a moisture-proof bag of veterinary records, as well as a family photo with your pet for proof of ownership. A collapsible dog dish, pet poop bags, a small blanket, leash and pet collar will be must-have items wherever your pet goes. In addition, The Bark adds:

“Consider storing supplies in several locations in case they are un-retrievable when the ground shakes, the flames rise or the mud slides. Positioning items inside, yet close to an outside wall, will allow easier access should buildings collapse and rummaging through rubble is required to get to supplies.

Stowing duplicate items in your car and/or office is a good idea, as is placing a battery or solar-powered radio, rubber-soled shoes and a flashlight near your bed.”5

Disaster Can Strike Anywhere

In 2019, California experienced its own serious earthquakes and hundreds of aftershocks. While no exorbitant damage occurred, power outages and fires could have caused much more disruption, and there’s no guarantee it won’t be worse next time. Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming have all been hit by wildfires since 2014, according to the Wildfire Statistics monitored by the Congressional Research Service, which notes:

“More wildfires occur in the East (including the central states), but the wildfires in the West are larger and burn more acreage … In 2018, nearly 36,200 fires burned 1.7 million acres in the East, compared with nearly 22,000 wildfires that burned more than 7.0 million acres in the West.”6

At least 43 people were killed in the Carolinas when Hurricane Florence struck in 2018. In the wake of that disaster, volunteers from across the southern U.S. banded together to help reunite pets with their families. While some are abandoned, pets can run away in fear or just get lost. NPR News writer Brian Mann states:

“People get separated from their animals during storms like this in different ways. Some pets were dropped off here by people fleeing Florence. Some evacuation shelters that take in people don’t take dogs and cats. Other pets just get lost in the confusion …

Volunteer and nonprofit groups outside the region are helping ease the pressure by taking in hundreds of animals already in shelters ready for adoption even before Florence hit.”7

Mann explained that while many rescue organizations focus on getting lost pets back to their families after cataclysmic events, it’s not always possible. In such cases, the next task shelter workers have is to find people willing to take in pets without a home, even if the “pairings” are made with foster families or new owners in distant parts of the U.S.

According to Newsweek,8 Tony Alsup, a trucker from Tennessee, was hailed as a hero after driving a school bus to four shelters in South Carolina to pick up 53 dogs and 11 cats before the worst of the hurricane struck. Alsup remarked that getting pets (as well as people) out of the way of possible disaster is better than being sorry you didn’t. He added, “Don't be somebody who thinks it's better to be lucky than safe.”9

For information on the nearest shelter in your area, text SHELTER + your ZIP CODE to 43362 (or 4FEMA), or visit The Bark also notes some very good advice: “Preparing for the worst may just prevent the worst from happening!”10

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