Many areas are subject to one or more forms of natural disasters. Depending on geographical location, these may include hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires, blizzards or floods. Most disasters offer limited time to prepare. That is why it is best to plan ahead of time, not only for you and your family, but for your pets as well.
While most people know the dangers associated with natural disasters, few are aware of the significant problem of lost and injured pets as well as pet fatalities that can occur during a disastrous event. During and after Hurricane Katrina, for example, over 15,000 pets had to be rescued, with the Louisiana SPCA estimating that about 85% never being reunited with their owners. With 68% of households owning pets and with ever-increasing population in disaster-prone areas, preparing for disasters with pets in mind is more important than ever.
The importance of having pets ready for a disaster at any time cannot be overstated. This guide will show pet owners how to better prepare for disasters and why it is important to have a plan in place. It will discuss the various options you have for taking care of your pet during (and after) a disaster — including suggestions on what to do should your pet become lost during a disaster and resources that may be able to assist. It will also address the period following a disaster as well as what to do during the recovery period.
Natural disasters are better discussed under the pretense of how and when rather than if. Being properly prepared may make all the difference for you and your pet.
Table of Contents
- Basic Safety Considerations
- Make Your Plan
- Taking Shelter at Home
- In the Event of an Evacuation
- After a Disaster
- Resources: Know Where to Get Help
Basic Safety Considerations
Animals seem to have an inherent ability to sense significant changes in the weather and seemingly even approaching natural disasters. At the first sign of an approaching storm or other natural disaster, pets should be brought indoors. This can keep them from running away to seek a safe place on their own. It can also serve to help calm a pet during this increasingly stressful period.
Keep in mind that – like us – pets may act differently during times of stress, such as a natural disaster. They may not be as predictable as normal. They could become more withdrawn, nervous or even a bit more aggressive. It is critical to always know where your pet is, and that you have control of him or her.
Basic safety considerations also include always having a sufficient supply of any medications, supplements, or vitamins that your pets may require. If you have a pet that normally takes medication to help them calm down during thunderstorms or other loud events, make sure that medicine is readily accessible.
It is important to keep your pets up-to-date on all of their shots. In the preparation period of a predictable disaster, veterinarians can quickly get backlogged with their four-legged patients, trying to catch up on prescriptions and shots prior to an impending issue. During and following a disaster, access to veterinary care can be limited or even nonexistent.
A natural disaster can expose pets to disease-carrying pests like ticks, mosquitos, and fleas. They may find themselves in proximity with large groups of people and other animals. An effective flea collar, flea comb/brush, and/or a good flea/tick shampoo can be very helpful tools to have in these cases. These close quarters can facilitate the spread of intestinal worms, ringworm, mange and spread upper respiratory infections. The stress alone may trigger a compromised immune system causing illnesses.
These issues can be exacerbated as a pet ages. Regular health checks and screenings become increasingly important along with maintaining proper immunizations. Most veterinarians suggest annual health checks for pets, twice yearly for older pets. This is particularly important for pets in disaster-prone areas.
Records and Identification
A pet’s medical records and identification may become extremely important in the chaos that can occur during and after a natural disaster, especially if you may be staying at a shelter or should your pet become lost. While not all shelters allow animals, those that do often require some proof that a pet is up-to-date on their immunizations. This is yet another reason it is important not only to maintain your pet’s health but to keep a good account of their medical records. Again, keep in mind in the days leading up to a disaster or evacuation, veterinarians will be inundated with requests. It is best to keep your pets records up-to-date and in a place that can be accessed easily when needed.
Make sure your pet is properly identified with a tag on its collar at all times. The collar should, at the very least, include your phone number. Microchipping a pet is less expensive than ever and can be critical should you and your pet become separated. If a storm is approaching, you’ll want to check the website of the microchip brand to verify that the personal contact information is current. Remember, people may have no or limited access to the internet or even cellphone service during a disaster, so plan accordingly.
If your pet takes medications, keep any prescriptions and other medical records with you. You may not be able to visit your regular veterinarian during or following a disaster and the records can be valuable to another vet that you may need to visit temporarily.
Your pet may have to go an extended period without a bath, brushing or nail trim during a natural disaster. This problem will be compounded if they are already behind in their regular grooming routine. Keeping a pet well groomed can at least make sure they have a good start entering any recovery period following a disaster.
Some of these grooming decisions may be based on the climate where you live. In a hot climate, your pet may appreciate a closer cut during the summer hurricane season months. Having trimmed nails can make it easier to transport a pet and can make walking a bit easier for them. Packing a bottle of shampoo, or waterless shampoo, for your dog may be appreciated during an extended stay in a shelter. Include a brush to help take care of matted hair.
While a pet’s regular grooming routine is likely to be negatively impacted by a natural disaster, the effects can be minimized if his grooming care is being kept up-to-date.
Basic First Aid
Basic first aid for pets starts with prevention. One of the best ways to prevent injuries to your pet is knowing where they are and keeping them under control at all times. In differing scenarios, this may mean keeping them indoors, on a leash or crated. Of course, in spite of the best intentions, accidents and illness can occur, especially through a natural disaster.
While we may see our pets as part of the family, first aid for pets can be far different compared to a human. It can be worthwhile to read up on or have a discussion with your veterinarian about simple, basic first aid for your particular pet. Keep in mind that an injured pet may not be as approachable as normal.
Basic first aid for pets also includes knowing some of the warning signs to diagnose a sick or injured pet. These can include:
- Loss of appetite and/or weight
- Persistent cough
- Lack of energy/lethargic behavior
- Dilated pupils
- Difficulty breathing
- Excess panting
- Increased urination
- Increase in thirst
If you notice this or other signs of illness in your pet, you should try to seek the advice of a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Following a natural disaster, there is often dangerous debris laying around. Pets can easily be inured if left to roam unattended through this debris. Broken glass, wood splinters, exposed nails, dangerous liquids and bad water all can create dangers. If a pet should get away, be cautious about following them into a potentially dangerous situation.
If your pet does suffer a cut or other injury that causes bleeding, take steps to control that bleeding. In the event a pet shows signs of a broken bone, do your best to immobilize the area. Contact a vet and let them know how the injury occurred and seek help immediately.
Make Your Plan
One of the key components in keeping you and your pet safe through a natural disaster is planning ahead of time for the various possibilities. This starts with understanding the natural disasters that take place in your area. Are there any local disaster protocols in a region or pre-set evacuation routes? Most communities have designated shelters, frequently schools and churches. Know where the shelters are nearest to you and make sure they would accept pets in an emergency. Some communities work with groups of volunteers who will take in animals during a disaster. Familiarize yourself with these options and procedures.
Under what circumstances would or should you evacuate? Where would you go? What would you need to take with you and how long should you prepare to be gone? These are all considerations to keep in mind when making your natural disaster plan.
Try to have enough food and water on hand to last you and your family three to seven days. As a general rule of thumb, a pet will usually require about a cup of water per day for every ten pounds of body weight.
Situations following a natural disaster can range from mildly inconvenient to complete chaos. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Keep a full tank of fuel in your vehicle and keep some emergency cash on hand. Place a map in the car in case your cell phone dies, breaks, or loses service.
Some take weeks planning for the perfect vacation, but won’t spend a few hours planning and organizing in the event of a natural disaster. Knowing what to do and where to go can make all the difference in a dangerous situation.
Have a “Go” Bag
Your “go” bag should be an important part of any plan during a disaster. A “go” bag is essentially any container that includes the items you will want to have immediately at your disposal should a natural disaster occur. Many use a duffel bag to serve as their go bag.
For humans, go bags typically include medical and insurance records, copies of IDs, snacks and water, a lighter, emergency cash, back-up cellphone batteries and chargers, a first-aid kit and any other items you may need in an emergency. Similarly for your pet, a go bag for them may include:
- Veterinarian records including updated shot and immunization records
- Feeding instructions and behavioral notes (in case of separation or emergency boarding)
- Short term supply of food and water (as well as a portable/travel food container)
- Comfort items like toys or a blanket
- Leashes & harnesses
- Pet specific first-aid kit
- Pet grooming items
Since it may not be practical to keep every item (like medications) in the bag at all times, you can keep a list in the bag of items that you will need to gather quickly before departing. You’ll also want to note other items to take with you in addition to your go bag, such as a dog crate or pet carrier, or hip and joint supplements if you have an older dog.
A “go” bag helps ensure that at least you will have the very basics available in an emergency. It also serves as a reminder of how important identification and medical records can be in an emergency.
Practice Your Evacuation
Practicing for an evacuation has benefits both for owners and their pets. Both can learn how to move at a calm but brisk pace without panic or stress. Practicing for an evacuation can help to set expectations for your pet and make you more aware of where your pet may need additional training.
A good place to start is by making sure your pet is easy to retrieve should they get loose. Precious time can be lost catching a loose pet while getting ready to evacuate.
If your pet is not used to a carrier or a leash, getting them familiar before an evacuation or other emergency can be extremely helpful. Gradually introduce them to a leash or harness for walks around your living room then eventually the neighborhood. Place an open carrier in a room a few times each week and allow them to explore it on their own. Perhaps you can encourage them to enter by placing a favorite toy or blanket inside.
Another important aspect of practicing for an evacuation is ensuring your pet won’t be reluctant to get into a vehicle. Practice making this a pleasant experience ahead of time. You could occasionally conduct a “dry run” with your pet getting them and their stuff loaded up into the vehicle quickly, and perhaps including a drive down a portion of an anticipated evacuation route. Practicing your evacuation can help build confidence in both you and your pet should a natural disaster occur.
Consider a “Pets Inside” Sticker
The ASPCA and other organizations make available “Pets Inside” window stickers for the front window of homes. The purpose of the sticker is to notify fire department personnel and other first respnders that a home contains a pet in the event of a fire. It can also be useful to let emergency workers know that your pet has been evacuated from the premises. Simply mark the sticker “evacuated” when your and your pet have safely left the home. This can save rescue workers valuable time following a disaster.
Taking Shelter at Home
Depending on the situation, the safest place for you and your pet may be at home. This can keep you off potentially crowded highways and out of serious weather conditions. You will also be in familiar surroundings with access to more food and comfort items. Sheltering at home allows you to stay among neighbors, most of which are usually willing to help each other out during these difficult times. It can also be less stressful on pets. Of course, if an evacuation is ordered, it is best to evacuate – but that is not always an option.
Even if you are to take shelter at home, there are still preparations to be made to keep you and your pet as safe and comfortable as possible. You’ll need to choose the safest place in your home to stay during the brunt of the event and have it properly prepared for at least a multi-hour stay. Taking shelter at home or not is a decision you may have to make, depending on the type and severity of the natural disaster you are facing. Be sure to let relatives and friends know of your intentions.
Choose a Safe Room
The first step in sheltering at home involves choosing a safe room. This is a place where you and your pet would stay during the most challenging period of a natural disaster. It is the place you would go as a hurricane or tornado approaches.
Choose a safe room that is on a lower floor, in the interior of the house away from windows and ideally, without outside walls. Many will choose a bathroom or large closet. The space should be large enough to sit the entire family reasonably comfortably with enough space for the pet. Since the safe room may need to be used for several hours, it should have room for a litter box or puppy pads. It should have a door that can be closed and latched shut.
The safe space should ultimately be the last place in a home that would be damaged by the effects of a natural disaster.
Safe Room Prep
Once you’ve chosen your safe room, you should plan and prep your room so it can be useful quickly in an emergency. Like any space where you would keep a pet, it should be free of any dangerous items including chemicals and cleaners. At the very least, dangerous substances should be stored in places that are inaccessible for your pet. The safe room should also contain the previously-mentioned go bags for both you and your pet.
Preparing the space for your pet can be fairly straightforward. Account for their toiletry needs and provide food and water. A favorite toy and blanket can be helpful as well. Have battery powered lighting and a radio handy.
Be sure to take your cellphone with you into the safe room. A battery back-up for your phone may prove invaluable. A safe room shouldn’t have heavy items overhead that could potentially fall on you or your pet. Make your safe room as secure and comfortable as possible. This is space that you may spend several hours in while you ride out the storm. If a pet begins to show signs of stress, they can sometimes be comforted by holding or petting them and playing soft music or singing. Pillows and blankets can make the space more comfortable for both pets and owners, and pets always appreciate having their favorite treats available.
In the Event of an Evacuation
Given enough time, you can always evacuate an area voluntarily. Authorities will generally give residents time to accommodate any mandatory evacuation. The earlier the decision is made to evacuate or not, the more orderly and less stressful the situation can be. Early evacuees will also have more options when it comes to choosing a hotel, which can be critical when pets are involved. Pet-friendly hotels often fill up quickly. Perhaps the most important aspect of evacuating is doing so safely and being prepared with the appropriate paperwork for both owners and pets.
Remember, mandatory evacuations are determined when the situation is deemed unsafe and potentially life-threatening. If it is unsafe for you, it is unsafe for your pet. Do not leave a pet behind or lock them in a safe room during an evacuation. This can be extremely stressful and dangerous for a pet, as well as for any first-responders who may have to go house-by-house following a disaster. Pets can injure themselves in a confined area when threatening conditions are present. It could be days or weeks before evacuees are allowed back into an area following a disaster. Instead, include your pet in your plans when evacuating.
Have a Predetermined Destination
It is typically best to have a predetermined destination for you and your pet when evacuating. That destination may be a friend’s or relative’s house, a pet-friendly hotel, or an emergency shelter.
Let friends and relatives know if you think their location is your best option. Make them aware if you will be bringing your pet to verify that won’t be an issue. Allow yourself enough time to reach your destination, keeping in mind heavy traffic and possible rest stops for your pet.
If a hotel is your best option secure space as soon as possible in an area that should be out of the danger zone. Finding “cheap” rates may be difficult and pet-friendly hotels can fill up quickly. Again, give yourself enough travel time to reach your destination in the desired time-frame.
If an emergency shelter is your best choice, you will want to verify if they allow pets or can accommodate them. Ask about any breed restrictions and paperwork that will be necessary for your pet. If finding a pet-friendly shelter proves problematic, you may be able to find a local animal shelter willing to help. Some shelters provide sanctuary services for owned pets during natural disasters.
If finances aren’t an issue, pet owners could also consider boarding their pet (in the area they are evacuating to, not where the disaster is taking place). Many veterinarians offer boarding services with the added benefit of providing any medical care should it be required in your absence. Veterinarians generally have strict rules about the pets they board, including ensuring they are up-to-date on shots and immunizations.
Evacuating by car can be a trying experience. Roads can be full, gas stations can be busy, stress levels are often high, and vehicles are tightly packed. It may be more important than ever to make sure everyone, including pets, can travel safely.
Cats and small dogs should be secured in carriers, if possible. Larger dogs should be kept safely in place with a special harness attached to a seat belt or calmly laying down by the feet of other passengers. Pets should not be permitted to roam the vehicle as it could create a significant driver distraction and be dangerous to them should an accident occur. Dogs should never be allowed to ride in the back of an open pick-up truck.
Many natural disasters like tornados, storms, and hurricanes occur during warm weather months. It is important not to leave pets locked in a vehicle, even for short stops. Temperatures can rise rapidly in a car, creating a potentially serious situation. When evacuating with a pet, allow for frequent stops for water. Because they will likely be in unfamiliar circumstances, keep dogs leashed when exercising during stops.
Finally, you will want to do your best to provide ample space for everyone traveling, including your pet. Make sure the car is not over-packed to an unsafe degree.
Alternative Option: The Designated Caregiver
Since disasters can occur at any time, it is possible one could strike while you are away. This is where a designated caregiver can come in handy.
A designated caregiver is someone you know and trust, as well as someone who – ideally – knows your pet very well. They should live reasonably close and most importantly, be willing to take care of your pet in your absence. This could mean retrieving your pet from your house, taking your pet to their house, evacuating the pet, or even making boarding arrangements for your pet.
A designated caregiver will need to have access to your house key and know where your pet’s go bag is located. The caregiver should have access to all of your pet’s medical records and be provided with a list of behavioral tendencies of your pet along with feeding and exercise routines.
A designated caregiver can be a friend, relative, co-worker or neighbor. They obviously should be responsible, willing, and have a fondness for animals. In some cases, people will serve as designated caregivers for each other.
After a Disaster
The time immediately following a natural disaster can be stressful, shocking and even devastatingly life changing. Homes and neighborhoods may not look the same. Roadways may be littered with debris and the sound of chainsaws may ring in the air for days. Power may be out for an extended period, affecting air conditioning, lighting, and refrigeration.
Depending on how much damage is done to your home and immediate surroundings, it may be a good option to leave your pet with a trusted friend, relative or boarding facility. This can lead to less stress for both your pet and for yourself. Check your home and yard for damage, debris and even any critters who may have found shelter on your property. Once you have had an opportunity to assess the damage, and when you feel both you and your property are ready, it can be time to bring your pet home.
If there has been significant damage to the area, your pet may become disoriented, and may even flee in search of familiar surroundings. It is important to keep a close watch on your pet, noting any unusual behavior. Watch for signs of your pet being over-stressed.
Should your pet exhibited signs of illness or injury, contact your vet and explain the situation. Depending on how your pet spent time during the natural disaster, your vet may recommend an examination.
Like you, your pet will want things to return to normal as soon as possible. This can be helped by feeding your pet familiar foods and treats in familiar dishes. Make favorite toys and blankets available. If your pet is used to a morning walk, try to re-establish that routine.
In a major disaster, recovery can be long and challenging. With patience, you and your pet can get through it, together.
If Your Pet Is Lost
One of the most heartbreaking and stressful periods following a natural disaster is discovering your pet has been lost. Even under normal circumstances, losing a pet can be challenging. Losing a pet immediately before, during or after a natural disaster amplifies that heartbreak and stress. Here are some steps owners can take in locating missing pets.
- If the pet was lost near home, ask neighbors if they recall seeing him or her.
- Notify your vet and the microchip manufacturer.
- Search any local classifieds or community sites for lost animals.
- Physically visit area shelters to see if your pet may be there.
You could also print posters and offer a reward, but keep in mind, the number of missing pets goes up significantly after a natural disaster. You can increase the odds of a happy reunion by keeping updated photos of your pet on your phone, having them microchipped and providing contact information on their collar.
Of course, the best solution is heightened awareness of where your pet is and how they are acting prior to, during and after a devastating event. You may want to keep them inside and/or leashed more frequently than normal. Remember, your pet is not running away from you as much as they are responding to the anxiety and stress of an unfamiliar situation. Anything you can do to minimize that stress can help keep your pet safely by your side.
Resources: Know Where to Get Help
Pet owners can take comfort knowing there are multiple pet-friendly organizations who understand the problems of having pets during a natural disaster. They offer a variety of resources to help with information, pet care, boarding and even in locating missing pets. Here are some potentially helpful resources.
The ASPCA Mobile App
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has a wealth of disaster preparedness information and a very useful app that pet owners can download. The app can be useful in locating missing pets.
Hill’s Disaster Relief Network
Hill’s is a company dedicated to the health and wellness of pets. They also assist in helping shelters across the country in providing food and shelter for pets during natural disasters.
Following Hurricane Katrina, local emergency management teams are now required by the federal government to have resources available to pet owners and their pets should a disaster occur. AKC Pet Disaster Relief helps local Emergency Management provide such relief following such a disaster.
One of the challenges facing pet owners when evacuating is locating pet-friendly hotels. Pets Welcome helps by allowing pet owners to search by location.
It can be easy to dismiss pet preparedness during a natural disaster by saying “I’ll be ready”, “I know my pet” or even “This shouldn’t be a problem.” The fact of the matter is it quickly becomes a problem every year for thousands of pet owners who were either ill-prepared or who didn’t understand the significance of the disaster.
For those who consider pets part of the family, being prepared is the best defense against the perils of natural disasters. Being prepared doesn’t take a large investment nor does it involve a lot of time. It does take the willingness to care enough about your pet to ask “what if?”
What if a tornado warning is issued for your community? Would you and your pet be ready? What if a hurricane was heading your way in the next 48 hours? What would you do and how would your pet survive in a flood, earthquake or blizzard? Are you ready to react in mere minutes should a wildfire begin engulfing your neighborhood?
Pet owners take on a deep responsibility when they bring a pet into the family. A pet will provide friendship, support, and love. They simply ask the same in return. Consider how much your pet means to you and your family and prepare for their care during any natural disaster that may come your way.