When the actual disaster hit, National Guard rescue personnel were under strict orders to abandon animals, to the heartbreak of many evacuees. In the aftermath, pet owners frantically searched for their lost companions, often to no avail.
One devoted New Orleans dog owner finally tracked down his beloved black lab in California, and had to fight for two years in court to regain custody after discovering “J.J.” had been adopted. More recently, east coasters got their turn. Eighteen months after losing their furry friend in Hurricane Sandy, a sad New Jersey family finally thought they might be ready to choose another dog, but when they showed up at the shelter, they were tearfully amazed to find their own “Reckless” licking their faces in joy!
Unfortunately, such miraculous coincidences are rare, and many hurricane-affected pet owners lose their companions for good. No one has been able to count how many pets lost their lives or were forced to turn feral during Katrina. The intensity of the human/animal bond and desperate struggles to reconnect reveals the importance of creating an animal-inclusive emergency plan. Times have changed, and now our federal government’s official advice is “DO NOT LEAVE YOUR PETS BEHIND!” in an evacuation. These animals depend on us for their survival, and most won’t make it on their own.
It’s hard to find the time to sit down and make a plan, shop for the necessary materials, and coordinate with friends and relatives to prepare for an event that may never happen. Remember, never having to use your disaster plan is the best-case scenario — but we don’t have to look far to find families who wish they had made the time to plan. Prepare for two basic scenarios: weathering an extended emergency at home, or evacuating quickly. These steps will outfit you for both possibilities, giving you the essential materials to improvise as the situation demands.
1. Identification is your pet’s lifeline.
Microchipping has saved many animal lives, and often the only hope for reunification if a collar is torn off. A tabby named “Scrub” lost in the Katrina aftermath found his owners after five years of scavenging, thanks to his microchip! Always update your microchip registration with any phone or address changes, and include a friend or relative outside your immediate area — ideally, one who is part of your evacuation plan. Even if they are microchipped, each pet still needs a sturdy collar and tags with phone numbers…including indoor cats, who are likely to escape in an emergency when panicked.
2. Make an emergency pet-survival kit,
And store it with the human preparedness supplies. It’s a good idea to have two kits: a stay-at-home kit, and a grab-and-go backpack for easy transport. Make sure all family members, as well as neighbors or relatives involved in your plan, know the location! The list of items should include:
- Bottled water (7+ days worth for the home kit, and at least 3 for the backpack)
- An emergency filter is a great addition.
- Pet food in pop-top cans or airtight containers (same quantities as water)
- Lightweight food dish
- Pet first-aid kit, including 2 weeks supply of any medications
- Small bottle household bleach (dilute 1:9 for disinfecting, or use 16 drops per gallon for emergency water purification)
- For birds, an automated timed feeder (missing a bird’s feeding can have grave consequences)
- For cats, litter and disposable aluminum roasting pans for litter trays
- Plastic bags for dog waste disposal
- Photocopies of vaccination records and any essential care information
- Extra collar and leash, carrier, or cage (for small animals, the Evacsak is lightweight and packable)
- Blanket (useful for calming and containing a panicked animal)
- Photographs of you and your pets together, for identification or search
- Chew toys if helpful for soothing
- For snakes: a pillowcase is handy for containing your snake temporarily. Other small reptiles and birds need a small cage with a cover.
- A paper copy of your emergency plan, including all relevant phone numbers and addresses detailed in the steps below.
Remember, this is in addition to the survival kit for your human family! Some pet supplies, such as food, medication, and bottled water, may need to be rotated periodically to maintain freshness.
3. Use an alert sticker to notify rescuers.
The ASPCA offers a free “pet safety pack” including a sticker that tells aid workers about your pets. List the type and number of pets, as well as your veterinarian’s name and phone number. If you do have to evacuate with your pets, write “evacuated” on the sticker, so workers don’t waste time looking for them.
4. Plan for pet-friendly shelter.
During Katrina, many evacuees were taken to the Astrodome where their pets were forbidden entry, and most emergency shelters have the same no-pets policy. Do you have a relative or friend living outside your immediate area, at a reasonable evacuation distance? Ask them if they would consider offering you and your pets shelter, and include their address and phone number on your disaster plan paperwork. You can also research pet-friendly hotels online, keeping in mind that in a large-scale emergency, hotels may not be an option. Make a list of pet boarding facilities, both near and farther afield, in case you cannot find a way to stay together. As a last resort, find out if local shelters or animal hospitals provide emergency shelter in a disaster.
5. Connect with a pet-safety buddy.
Consider what happens if disaster strikes when you’re at work, shopping, or out of town? Work with a trusted neighbor on a mutual pet-rescue plan. This may involve exchanging house keys, evacuation plans, and emergency contact information to help you get in touch even if cell networks are down. Ideally, choose someone your pet feels comfortable with, so they will cooperate even under stress. The perfect candidate would have a schedule that leaves them often at home during the hours you are away. Your buddy can also help in the event of personal injury, serious illness, or family emergency.
6. For at-home emergencies, make a “safe room”.
This is a place where your family and pets can shelter together. Your emergency supplies should be stored here, in a secure, accessible location. It should be free of hazards to a panicked pet, including toxic products, large objects that could be knocked over, sharp implements, and unsafe nooks and crannies where a scared animal may try to hide. During a crisis, any openings such as a fireplace, vent, or pet door should be closed off with thick plastic sheeting and strong tape. Bring your pets inside at the first warning of severe weather, as the risk of bolting and getting lost is high under intense stress.
7. Plan for the worst: know where to search for your lost pet.
Have a list of all local shelters with phone numbers, including a wide geographical radius, as pets have been known to run far afield to escape a threat. Many rescue organizations are created by individual pet-lovers to respond to a need: Louisiana resident Donna Powell created 911 Parrot Alert (a domestic bird reunification network) shortly before Katrina hit, and was able to offer an impromptu bird shelter in her home, saving the lives of many feathered friends.
8. If you have outdoor or farm animals, special considerations apply.
Look into specific ideas to care for your outdoor cats, horses, or livestock during an emergency. It’s not easy facing an evacuation scenario with your pet in tow. Compromises are demanded, inconveniences are many. Be prepared for unpredictable behavior as stress causes ordinarily docile creatures to act out in fear. This is the pact we made with our companion animals: they offer us loyalty, cooperation, and comfort, and in return we pledge to shelter and protect, no matter what. Navigating scary and unfamiliar territory during crisis, we people and animals need one another more than ever. National Guard workers have estimated that up to 40% of those who refuse to evacuate an unsafe area during an emergency, stay behind because they won’t leave their pets to die. That’s a dreadful choice no one should have to make.
It’s easy to say “it won’t happen here” and procrastinate. Even the most peaceful communities cannot afford complacency when it comes to emergency preparedness — just ask the residents of those formerly uneventful Washington State towns ravaged by wildfire this summer.
Prepared, we can walk into crisis with confidence, knowing we’ve earned our pets’ snuggles and trust by planning for their safety.