Preparing Your Pets for Disaster and Evacuation
By Allen and Linda Anderson
Nadia Sutton is a lifelong animal lover who introduced herself to us as slave to MacDuff, the Diva cat.” She is the founder of PAWS/LA, an organization in Los Angeles, California. It provides pet food, veterinary care, and in-home services at no cost to companion animals of seniors and people living with life-threatening illnesses. Nadia started the organization in 1989, in response to a friend who was hospitalized with complications from AIDS. His parents had taken his cat away, and it had demoralized him. Nadia took care of the man’s cats so he could continue to be with them, and he lived another six months. She says of her volunteer work, “We receive so much more than we give.” Nadia told us that her life was saved by one of her cats ten years ago. She had moved into a new apartment, and one morning at five o’clock her black cat, Chat Noir, woke her by screaming and clawing. When Nadia got up she saw flames shooting from the apartment below up to her window. Barely able to breathe from the smoke, Nadia called the fire department. She got her cats into carriers, managed to throw on some clothes, and ran downstairs with the cats. In less then two minutes, the firefighters arrived.
Nadia says, “Some careless people had left their rug on top of a heater. Another minute and we would all have died. Because Chat Noir woke me, my cats and I were saved. I know that God came through Chat Noir. I was feeling very grateful. It was pouring rain. The man who lived next to me invited me inside. I said, ‘Look, I’m sorry. I don’t have my bra on.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, sweetie, neither do I.’”
Accidents and disasters happen quickly. What if Nadia had not had the cat carriers ready and easily accessible? Could she have saved the lives of the cats, even after one of them had warned her, and kept the building from burning down?
What Would You Do?
What if the worst happens to you and your animal and human family? Maybe it is the police or the National Guard pounding on your front door at 3:00 am, telling you that the nearby chemical plant is leaking deadly fumes and you have to leave now. Or that there is an out-of-control wildfire or a train derailment with hazardous fumes spreading or a river rising and spilling over its banks. At the most, you might have five minutes to escape.
What if you aren’t home when disaster strikes? How will your animals survive?
When we took the animal disaster-training course offered by the AHA, our instructor, Kerri, said that everyone needs to plan. “Those who are prepared are the ones who will survive a disaster.”
Planning means you made a choice. You chose to be smart, to be aware, and to know that disasters are possible, even in the illusory safety of your home. Planning means that you are proactive and working to beat the odds.
There are at least fifty articles and disaster-preparedness checklists in print and on websites. After Hurricane Katrina, every newspaper, magazine, and animal organization cranked out checklists with item after item to add to our already overflowing to-do lists. But if you’re like us and get overwhelmed easily, you might appreciate knowing the top five things you can do to prepare your pets for disaster. The following are five simple points to consider as a way of assessing your preparedness. Much of the information was adapted from material developed by the HSUS and American Red Cross. The questions below each point will give you ideas for actions to take.
Pet Disaster-preparedness Quiz
1. Take your pets with you and get out fast.
- Can you gather all your pets quickly and put them into pet carriers?
- Can you grab leashes, muzzles, and water bowls and pack a couple days’ supply of water bottles and food in waterproof containers for each pet?
- Can you get your pets out of the house in less than five minutes?
- If you have a bird, do you have a blanket in your car that you can wrap over the carrier to keep the bird warm if necessary?
- If you have a snake or reptile, do you have a large pillowcase handy so you can secure the animal until you reach the evacuation site?
- If you have small mammals (hamsters, gerbils, and so forth), do you have carriers suitable to keep the animals in while you evacuate? Do you have bedding materials, food bowls, and water bottles nearby?
2. Make sure your pets can be identified even if their collars come off.
- Are your pets wearing securely fastened collars and ID tags with their names and identifying information either laminated or written with indelible ink?
- Are your pets microchipped? (For microchips, contact 24PetWatch, HomeAgain, and Avid.)
- If you have a bird, do you have a leg band for him or her with identification?
- Do you have identification and emergency phone numbers securely fastened to your pets’ carriers?
- Does the collar ID tag and microchip have the pet’s name, your name, and two emergency telephone numbers, including one that is not your home?
3. Keep photographs and descriptions of distinguishing features and medical conditions of your pets in the glove compartment of your car and/or in a safe deposit box. Include a photo of you with your pet so you can claim the pet at a rescue site.
- If your pet escapes from the carrier or runs off from the house when a firefighter busts open the door, do you or does someone else have photographs and descriptions somewhere, other than at your home, so you can make a flyer and post the information on PETS911.com?
4. Keep in your car or away from your home a list of places to evacuate.
- Do you know where you can go with your pets in the event of an emergency evacuation?
- Do you have a list of nearby pet-friendly motels along a fifty-mile evacuation route?
5. Make sure your pets are taken care of even if you can’t do it yourself.
Have you posted on your front door a Rescue Alert sticker listing the type and number of pets in your home?
Have you made prior arrangements with people you can trust who will help you and your pets in an emergency?
Have you made arrangements with a friend or relative (someone not allergic to pets) who Does a friend, family member, or neighbor have access to photographs of and veterinarian information about your pets in case you are too sick, injured, or far away to save and find them?
Did you discover holes in your readiness? If so, you are not alone.
We, like many others, were shocked to find how many times we answered no to the quiz questions.
So now is the time to become the doer, the smart one, and prepare for an event that you hope never arrives. Look at the questions again and do whatever you need to do, immediately, to answer each question with a yes.
Jeffery Smith, a New Orleans resident who had to leave without five of his pets ‹ two large dogs, two cats, and one bird ‹ after the levees broke, added a practical bit of advice to the quiz above, something that should be obvious but is often overlooked. Jeffery told us, “Never own more pets than you can evacuate with!”
It Could Happen to You
Unfortunately, the odds are that most people will experience a disaster in their lifetime. Earthquakes, home fires, accidents, wildfires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and mud slides affect millions each year. Human-made disasters, such as hazardous material spills or terrorist attacks, dramatically increase the odds against your safety.
The ASPCA in its publications and on its website lists the steps you can take to be prepared, with the idea that each type of disaster requires different measures to keep your pet safe.
The ASPCA’s Julie Morris told us that the importance of preparation was reinforced for her when she was forced to evacuate her home early one morning.
When I was the executive director of the Humane Society of Ann Arbor, Michigan, I experienced an immediate evacuation call from local police. At 3:00 am I heard police loudspeakers outside on the neighborhood streets, telling everyone, “Get out of your homes immediately!”
I was disoriented with it being so early, especially since Ann Arbor is not exactly a big area for disasters. The first thing I did was to round up my dog and two cats. The loudspeakers continued, and I heard that explosions were expected from the local oil refinery. It looked bad at the time, so I didn’t want to leave the animals behind.
I did not know when we would be able to get back, so I drove my dog and cats away from the evacuation area to a friend’s house. I knocked on the door, and the tired, half-asleep husband let me in. Keeping the cats in their cage, I went to sleep on my friends’ couch. I woke up in the morning hearing the husband say to his wife, “I’m not sure if it was a dream, but I think I let Julie Morris in the house last night.” I yelled from the couch, “I’m here!”
That morning I learned that the authorities had let everybody back into their homes in the evacuated area at 5:00 am, so the evacuation had been for only two hours. But had the oil refinery actually blown up, we could have been gone from our homes for weeks.
Julie stresses, “As soon as the police or local authorities tell you to leave the area, there is obviously a reason, so protect yourself and your animals. You just don’t know what will happen.” And if you have to evacuate, she says, “Leave with your animals! If you don’t, a rescuer has to try to save your pets. Or if you return to the disaster area for your pets, you could place yourself or other people at risk.”
A great idea is to have a Rescue Alert sticker on the front door of your house. You can get this for free at the ASPCA website. It alerts emergency personnel that there are animals in the house and tells the number and types. The Oregon Humane Society also offers a free pet Rescue Alert sticker on its website. Code 3 Associates has a downloadable emergency release form, which allows anyone who needs to offer emergency medical care to your pets to have permission to do so. Fill it out ahead of time so you don’t have to try to remember all the information when you are in a panic.
A Pet Disaster-supplies Kit
If you are away from your home for a day, a week, or longer (some people from the Gulf Coast have not returned more than six months after Hurricane Katrina), you will need supplies for your pets. On its website the HSUS, working with the American Red Cross, recommends that your pet disaster-supplies kit should include:
- Medications, a first-aid kit, and medical records (stored in a waterproof container)
- Sturdy leashes, harnesses, and/or carriers to transport pets safely and ensure that your animals can’t escape
- Current photos of your pets in case they get lost
Food, potable water, bowls, cat litter/pan, and can opener
- Information on feeding schedules, medical conditions, behavior problems, and the name and number of your veterinarian in case you have to foster or board your pets
- Pet beds and toys, if easily transportable
None of these preparations is hard to accomplish. Creating your pet disaster-supplies kit is a one-time task, and then it will be ready for use in the months and years ahead.
Also, we think that businesses are missing an opportunity. They could manufacture and sell affordable portable animal disaster-preparedness kits containing everything people and pets need to quickly evacuate in an emergency, with a place for pets’ identifying information in each kit.
Plan for Safe Havens and Designated Caregivers
Plan ahead by designating a caregiver in case you aren’t available, and know the places where you or they can evacuate with your pets. Animal rescuer Eric Rice brought up an excellent point. He said, “My home is in the Annapolis, Maryland, area. My work is in Baltimore, which is forty-five minutes north. What happens if I go to work in Baltimore and a dirty bomb is dropped on Annapolis or the Washington, DC, area? I can’t go back to get my pets. How do I prepare for that?”
Ask yourself the same “what if” question, and look at the list below for things you can do to make it safer for your pets if you aren’t there to protect them.
- Ask friends, relatives, and others who are not affected by the disaster if they will get your pets for you. Make sure these friends or relatives won’t be evacuating in vehicles that are too crowded or to places that won’t let them bring pets.
- Prepare a list of veterinarians and boarding facilities within one hundred miles of your location for possible boarding. Find out if the facility where a friend might take your pets has an evacuation plan in place for the animals in its care.
- Find out if a trusted neighbor would be willing to take your pets and meet you at a prearranged location. This person should be comfortable with your pets, know where your animals are likely to be and where your pet disaster-supplies kit is kept, and have a key to your home. If you use a pet-sitting service, it may be available to help, but discuss the possibility well in advance. Always be prepared for any possibility.
- Check with local animal shelters to see if they provide emergency sheltering or foster care for pets in a disaster. This should be the last resort for your designated caregiver to use because local shelters will likely be overburdened during and after the disaster and possibly affected by it themselves. Find out what the animal shelter’s euthanasia policies are should you not be able to get in contact with the facility to reclaim your pets right away.
Use the Warning Time Well
If you are lucky enough to be warned ahead of time that a disaster is approaching, you can better prepare to protect your pets. You can call ahead to confirm emergency shelter arrangements and make reservations at pet-friendly hotels. (Remember, many hotels waive their no-pets policies in a disaster evacuation.) With warning time, you can check to be sure your pet disaster supplies are ready. Keep all pets in the house so that you won’t have to search for them if you have to leave in a hurry.
Be sure all dogs and cats are wearing securely fastened collars and have up-to-date identification. Also, attach the phone number and address of the place where you will evacuate or of a friend or relative outside the disaster area. You can buy temporary tags or put adhesive tape on the back of your pets’ ID tags, adding the temporary information with an indelible pen.
Keep informed about where pet-friendly evacuation shelters will be located in your area. In case you can’t get into a pet-friendly hotel, a pet shelter next to a people shelter may be your last resort. Many of these animal shelters will require that you bring your own crates, pet food, supplies, medications, and veterinarian records showing vaccinations. Of course, there will probably be exceptions made for people who had to flee hurriedly. But being able to get into the relatively few spaces that would be available in one of these shelters is another good reason to have a pet disaster kit in your car.
The Humane Society of South Mississippi, Harrison County schools, and the civil defense are going to have pet-friendly evacuation sheltering for future hurricanes. According to an article by Karen Nelson, posted on the Biloxi Sun Herald website, the shelter will be “near the masonry shop on the grounds of Harrison Central High School.”
In contrast, Dr. Renee Poirrier, in a Best Friends online article about a meeting with animal rescuers that took place in April 2006, is quoted as saying that Louisiana will have pet shelters in future disasters but won’t announce their locations in advance because they don’t want to encourage people to rely on them. She stressed individual responsibility in preparing to evacuate with your pets and says, “For the most part, we’re going to expect people to take care of themselves.”
As each state and local area throughout the country devises preparedness plans for evacuating pets in a disaster, each resident will have to adjust accordingly.
Preparations and Planning for Horses
It is important to take extra care with large animals. Horses are especially vulnerable during and after a disaster because just transporting them requires planning and considerable resources. Horses’ lives depend on you and the work you have done prior to a disaster to ensure their safety.
The following is from the HSUS website about why people with horses need to be prepared: “If you think disasters happen only if you live in a flood plain, near an earthquake fault line, or in a coastal area, you may be tragically mistaken. Disasters can happen anywhere and can take many different forms, from barn fires to hazardous material spills to propane line explosions, and train derailments all of which may necessitate evacuations. It is imperative that you are prepared to move your horses to a safe area.”
Without preparation and planning, your horses could be on their own for days after a disaster. We recommend you visit “Disaster Preparedness for Horses” on the HSUS website for detailed information and suggestions to help you plan for emergencies.
If you are lucky enough to know ahead of time that you need to evacuate, you can make arrangements in advance for where to take your horses, and you can prepare the necessary trailers and equipment.
On the MyHorseMatters.com website, veterinarian Dana N. Zimmel writes, “Hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, and fire are the most common natural disasters in the state of Florida. The leading cause of death in large animals during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 included animals killed in collapsed barns, electrocution, kidney failure secondary to dehydration, and animals hit and killed on roadways or tangled in barbed wire after escaping from their pasture. Each farm should have a written disaster plan to optimize safety and survival of all animals.”
Dr. Zimmel’s excellent and comprehensive article includes a list of things to do prior to a storm or other disaster, including outfitting each horse with at least one, if not all, of the following:
- A leather halter with name/farm information in a ziplock bag secured to the halter with duct tape
- A luggage tag with the horse/farm name and phone number braided into the tail (make sure this is waterproof)
- Photos of each horse as proof of ownership highlighting obvious identifying marks
And don’t forget to have your horse microchipped.
Excerpted from Rescued: Saving Animals from Disaster by Allen and Linda Anderson. Copyright © 2006 by Allen and Linda Anderson. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission New World Library. $16.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-972-6657, Ext. 52 or click here.