Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods: Unless you've got a crystal ball handy, it's probably going to be tough to predict when a natural disaster is going to strike. However, that doesn't mean you can't be prepared for when Mother Nature does indeed decide to make a spontaneous, aggressive visit. If you're a pet owner, taking your four-legged friends into consideration should be an integral part of creating an emergency game plan.
Consider the impact of recent disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. More than 250,000 pets, including cats, dogs and fish, were left stranded by this storm and the subsequent flooding by owners who thought they would have returned in a few days but were unable to do so.
It's a staggering number, and one that should motivate pet parents to think ahead. Let's look at some of the precautions that can be taken in advance, as well as what to do when time is truly nonexistent and spur-of-the-moment decisions must be made.
One way to prepare before disaster strikes is to outfit your pet with the proper identification from the get-go. Tags are a great place to start, and the good news is, there are a number of inexpensive and even fashionable options for obtaining an engraved pet tag. Include your pet's name, along with one or two contact numbers (such as mobile and home, or mobile and vet), and perhaps your e-mail address on the tag.
Also consider implanting a microchip, one of the most reliable methods for recovering a lost or stray pet (according to the ASPCA). Though the procedure is often paired with spaying or neutering efforts when the animal is already under sedation, keep in mind that the actual procedure is not very invasive to begin with. Most vets liken it to a booster shot. The tiny chip is injected beneath your pet's skin and once implanted, will stay inside the animal for its entire life.
Each chip includes a registration identification number, as well as the phone number for the registry that originally assigned it. Once contacted, the registry can track down all associated owner contact information, so should your pet end up in a shelter, the data can be retrieved through the use of a handheld scanner. The process is painless for your pet, and nearly every shelter and vet has a scanner on site to use for such purposes.
Tags and microchips can help reunite an owner with their pet, but it would also be wise to keep a recent snapshot (or several) of the animal readily available. Create easy access to electronic copies of pet photos, which can then be posted on community websites such as Craigslist or Facebook, as well as distributed quickly and widely via email or text message. Have printed versions on hand, too, just in case you're in a situation where power is knocked out.
On that note, if the electricity is out of commission, the copy machine will be, too, so you might want to go ahead and make several copies of a flyer with the word "MISSING" noted across the top, as well as your pet's name, photo and your contact info. Don't forget to account for how you'll need to post fliers (tape, staples, etc.) and keep those supplies nearby as well.
Should a speedy evacuation be under order, the last thing you want to do is waste time trying to round up your four-legged friend. Make sure your pet is crate-trained or at least crate-friendly, so the animal will respond immediately when called during a disaster.
Many animal behavior experts, such as Diana L. Guerrero, advise pet owners to develop a trigger to get the animal to go to the crate (be it a word, noise, or whistle); then follow up by rewarding the pet with a treat every time the specific sound is presented. Investing time in this type of training up front could prove beneficial should you need to retrieve your pet quickly so it can be relocated to a safer area.
Also, consider keeping a spare crate in your car or at a friend's house. In some instances, you might not have more than a split second to grab your pet with your own two hands and go!
If your pet takes medication on a regular basis, keep tabs on where you store it so you can grab any prescriptions at a moment's notice if necessary. Factor in standard monthly needs such as heartworm and flea medications along with any special meds your furry friend may require, such as steroids or anti-depressants (yes, they make them for pets, too!)
Try to keep a two- or three-week supply of medication on hand at all times, as you never know how long it might be before you can replenish. Store it in a waterproof container to avoid contaminating or ruining your supply. In addition to medical records kept on file with your vet, make an extra copy to store in your purse, car, or office, and consider giving a family member or friend the list as well.
Don't wait until the tornado drops down in your backyard; heed the advice of FEMA and bring pets inside as soon as any watches or warnings hit the airwaves. It's wise to predetermine which areas of the home can serve as safe havens, which could depend on what type of disaster is at hand. Choose a room that's easy to clean and has access to water, such as a bathroom. In the event of flooding, head for the highest location in your house or a room with high shelves for your pets to shelter.
Keep the safe room stocked with enough food and bottled, distilled water for your pet to be comfortable for at least five to seven days. Don't forget about bathroom supplies, too, whether that means fresh litter, pee pads, newspapers or plastic bags.
Own a more unusual pet? Review the following tips from the ASPCA on what to pack for emergency supplies:
- Birds: secure travel cage/carrier, blanket (for cold weather to put over cage), spray bottle with water (to moisten feathers during warmer seasons), recent photos, food (remember birds need to eat daily, so a timed feeder is best), and cage liner.
- Reptiles: pillowcase for emergency transport, sturdy bowl for longer duration (also to allow soaking), heating pad or bottle, food.
- Small critters (such as hamsters, gerbils, mice): secure carriers, at least a week's worth of bedding materials (such as shredded newspaper or straw), food along with dish, extra water bottle (full), a box or tube for nestling/hiding, salt lick.
Most emergency shelters won't accept pets on-site for public health reasons. As such, organizations such as FEMA and the Humane Society recommend research to become familiar with pet-friendly hotel options before disaster strikes. Consider programming the numbers of pet-friendly hotels and motels within a 100-mile radius into your phone. Make sure to clarify any necessary deposits required in addition to the nightly rate, as well as any restrictions on size, breed, type, or quantity of pets, in advance.
As a backup, look into veterinarian offices or animal hospitals in your area that might be able to provide fostering or assistance. Try to only rely on these as a last resort, as these places often become inundated during widespread emergencies.
Friends with Pet-efits
Create an emergency call list of family and friends who could offer refuge for your pet and step in to foster temporarily in case of emergency. Remember to make a hard copy of this list that you can keep in your wallet or glove box, so you're covered in case your cell phone dies. In addition to finding out if your friend is willing, review other factors such as distance in advance. If she lives far from you, could you set up a meeting point halfway in case of emergency, to cut down on transportation time?
Consider whether your friend already has other pets and how your own might interact with hers. Additionally, you might want to establish an emergency savings account that you can dip into in order to alleviate any financial hardships for taking on a foster role, or even provide her with access to this account.
Shelter from the Storm
With the exception of service animals, most emergency shelters don't accept pets on site for public health reasons. However, there are a few pet-friendly shelters in most states. Ready.gov, an online campaign developed by FEMA, Citizens Corp, American Red Cross and the Humane Society, offers a robust set of resources and tools for pet owners. You can also find a list of pet-friendly shelters at petfriendlytravel.com.
Once you identify an emergency shelter that will accept you and Fluffy, probe further by asking the following:
- How does in-take work? Is it first-come, first served?
- Is there a cap on the number of pets accepted overall, or is it per person?
- Are there any restrictions such as type of pets allowed or certain breeds?
- Does the shelter offer room and board, or is the owner expected to supply food and water for the pet?
- Is there a maximum amount of time allowed in terms of staying on-site?
Most emergency and rescue organizations strongly urge against ever leaving pets behind during a disaster. While there might be a temptation to believe it's better to just let them "ride out the storm," unfortunately, the duration of a crisis can be hard to predict. Should a situation take a sudden turn for the worse -- for example, your area becomes flooded, preventing you from returning home -- your pet's chances of survival will decrease significantly.
However, if you're faced with a situation where there's no choice but to leave the pets behind, FEMA recommends leaving them loose inside your house (as opposed to crated), along with access to an ample stock of food and water. Outfit your home with external notification stickers that alert outsiders that pets are inside (many organizations such as the ASPCA provide such emergency alert stickers for free or a nominal donation) and add additional signage as well. Of course, return as quickly as possible to your residence to ensure pets are accounted for and secure.
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- America Society Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). "Disaster Preparedness." (Oct. 13, 2010.)http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/disaster-preparedness/
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). "Information for Pet Owners." (Oct. 13, 2010.)http://www.fema.gov/plan/prepare/animals.shtm
- "Katrina's Animal Rescue". PBS. (Oct. 22, 2010)http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/katrinas-animal-rescue/introduction/2561/
- Humane Society of United States (HSUS). "Disaster Preparedness for Pets." (Oct. 13, 2010.)http://www.hsus.org/hsus_field/hsus_disaster_center/resources/disaster_preparedness_for_pets.html
- Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). "High Technology: Identifying Lost Pets with Microchips." (Oct. 26, 2009.)http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/resources/tips/microchips.html
- International Fund for Animal Welfare. "Tips for Keeping Your Pets Safe During Disasters." (Oct. 13. 2010.)http://www.ifaw.org/Publications/Program_Publications/Emergency_Relief/Disaster_Preparation_Tips_for_Pets.php