The photos that came out after the fires that devastated California in 2018 were enough to make anyone cry. Some of the most poignant were those of the animals — dogs with burned eyes, cats with scorched feet, horses and deer fleeing the flames. Animal shelters were flooded by lost pets, with owners desperately hoping to reunite with their furry families.
The statistics in the wake of a major disaster are sobering. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Louisiana SPCA estimates that 104,000 pets were abandoned, with as many as 70,000 perishing after that storm. Take that in: 70,000.
Pet owners: You need a plan. One that includes your animals. Make that plan today, in the clear light of a nice day. Because when a storm rolls in (or a fire, or a blizzard, or…) you don’t want to be frantically looking for your pet carrier in your attic.
Linda Torelli is the director of marketing and program development for the Brandywine Valley SPCA, one of the largest SPCA associations in the nation. With offices across Pennsylvania and Delaware, Brandywine frequently shelters up to 14,000 animals a year.
Torelli, who helps with massive, complex pet evacuations, says the real wake-up call came during Katrina. “It was tragic for so many people and so many pets,” she says. Logistically, pet rescue was chaotic with “so many pets going through multiple hand-offs from shelter to shelter.” The result: Nobody kept track of thousands of animals, so many were never reunited with families. Rescuers often refused to take evacuees who wanted to bring their pets, which finally led to federal legislation that requires registered state agencies to allow humans and their animals to be evacuated together.
Here are 6 pet-saving things to know and implement.
1. Got to evacuate? Take your animal with you!
If at all possible, take your pets with you when you evacuate. You may not be able to get back to your house easily afterward. The best way to ensure that this happens is to evacuate early. Don’t wait are you may be stuck at home — or have to abandon your pets at home.
Your trusty pet carrier should be readily accessed at a moment’s notice. Even better if the carrier has restraints to seat-belt it into a vehicle, like the Sleepypod Air In-Cabin Pet Carrier. Same goes with smart leashes for dogs and, potentially, dog booties, to protect soft paws from debris. (For even more in-depth information on caring for dogs in an emergency, specifically, see Dog Safety in an Emergency, with advice from canine expert Jeff Franklin.)
Action Item: Figure out where you’re going ahead of time
Identify pet-friendly hotels within driving distance. During Hurricane Harvey many hotels and motel chains turned away evacuees with pets (and were subsequently shamed on social media). You don’t want to have to rely on the kindness of a hotel manager bending the rules. You should instead make a list of places you can book on a moment’s notice in a reasonable driving radius, presuming the nature of the disaster is one that gives you time to react deliberately.
Also, have conversations with friends and family in a calm moment. Could they shelter your animals in a time of need — even if it’s for an extended period? If you have to leave your house, you may not return for a long time. Look what happened to peoples’ homes in California’s Camp Fire. Those people and their pets are facing a long road. Think in the longterm, as well.
2. Heaven forbid — but what happens if I have to leave my pet behind?
Many pet experts say there is simply no reason to leave a pet behind if you’re evacuating from your home. But there are many cases where you may be away from home when a disaster strikes. For that reason, it is essential to have a plan worked out with neighbors. Make sure the neighbor has a key and access, and that they know how many pets you have and where they like to hide. Presuming they’re able to do so, they can keep your pets at their home or evacuate with them. If both sets of families have pets, you can also be their backup plan.
Action Item: Stickers
Imagine there is a house fire, and you’re not home. How will rescuers know about your pets? The national ASPCA has simple stickers you attach the front door or to a prominent location so that rescuers know the type and number of pets inside, as well as your vet’s contact number. Your vet or pet supply store may also have these stickers. The ASPCA recommends that if you self-evacuate with your animals that you write “EVACUATED” across the stickers as you split, so rescuers don’t waste valuable time looking for you and your animals.
Looking back on the Camp Fire, many stories did not turn out well. People and animals were trapped in houses and vehicles. Torelli says that you should remember that, “animals have instincts.” She says that in the worst case scenario when, say, your home is on fire and you have no choice, let the dogs and cats out. They’ll run from fires, they’ll out-swim floodwaters, they’ll seek shelter because it’s instinctual. She says that one of the worst results of Katrina were pet owners forced to evacuate who didn’t open their homes to give their pets the chance to survive. As grim as that might be, if the animal is chipped they could be later identified and potentially reunited with you. But that might only happen if you open the door or the window and let them run to safety.
Again, this would be the last recourse. Better to have evacuated early whenever possible.
3. How will my pet be identified if a disaster strikes and I cannot get back home?
Action Item: Chip ’Em
Getting reunited with a pet can be a major challenge, even after they’ve been rescued and ended up in a shelter. “Your dog or cat might get stuck during a disaster and yank itself out of its collar and now there’s no way to ID the animal,” Torelli says.
Chipping an animal, in which a microchip is placed under the skin, is a sure way to make reunification easier. It is usually performed by a vet, and all vets and shelters have chip readers. “The first thing we do when we take animals into the shelter is check if they’re chipped,” Torelli says. (Note that the chip will lead to a registry with the owners’ name and phone number. It’s imperative that owners update that registry with current information!) Torelli points out that “indoor-only” pets should be chipped, too.
There are also GPS trackers like the Findster+, which attach to a pet’s collar. But collars may be lost and the technology could be damaged, so we suggest using a GPS tracker in conjunction with a microchip.
Torelli also recommends having ready access to your pets’ records — a difficulty if you’ve left your house and all your records behind.
Action Item: Put your pets’ records in the cloud
A simple cloud storage drive is something you can access on your phone, rather than needing a physical copy. Again, think about a scenario where the last thing you want to sweat is having to keep paper records in a “go bag” and having to protect those. (Note: You could also create a PDF file of these and save these on a phone, too.)
4. If my pets are on medication, do I have a redundant supply?
Action item: Get extra drugs for your pooch or cat
Torelli says you should have a conversation with your vet about your animals’ needs in the case of an emergency. If you already have an animal that gets stressed traveling in normal circumstances, they’re going to pick up on your anxiety during an evacuation. If that’s the case, you’ll want to have whatever meds they’ve been prescribed in the past on hand alrady in your go bag. This also means recording the expiration date of the drugs, and doing something like setting an alarm in a calendar app on your phone for a year from now when those meds have expired so you can renew the script.
Having a copy of this script in that data folder will also help if you cannot access your regular vet and need to get that prescription refilled while you’re away.
5. What happens to my pet if something happens to me?
Torelli can be blunt. “People die.” In fact, owners die all the time, of all kinds of things, and she explains that it’s best to plan for the inevitable.
Action Item: Put your pets in your will
It seems so basic, but Torelli says frequently pet owners don’t have their pets written into their wills, and that can mean they wind up in a shelter rather than with someone who really loves them, and who, in fact, might be consoled by knowing you would have wanted them to take care of your dogs or cats.
6. Know the law!
Torelli says that in the wake of Katrina, many states passed legislation that requires shelters to hold pets longer than they otherwise might, in an effort to make sure pets and pet owners can more easily be reunited. (You can find many of these state laws at Michigan State’s Animal Legal and Historical Center.) Torelli says the laws are designed to protect pets even if they have to get evacuated out of state. She explains that during 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, groups like hers held mass adoption events to clear their own shelters to take in pets from Texas, so that the Texas shelters would be empty and able to take in displaced animals after the storm. Yes, that meant airlifting thousands of animals, that were then dispersed to both large and small shelters nationwide.
That said, knowing the law where you live is a good idea, because it might pertain to how you go about finding your animals after an evacuation, and what shelters are obligated to do to maintain or reestablish your custody.
More From the Preparation Concierge:
Get Informed: The Pet-Priority Safety Center
The Cold-Weather Booties Every Dog Needs
What To Do With Your Dog in an Emergency
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