Caring for pets in emergency situations
By Trisha Gurley
Be prepared – it’s the Boy Scout motto and a good motto for us all. Alas, I’ll be the first to admit that I am not always prepared. I’m doing well to get myself dressed and out the door most mornings. Keeping a decent food supply in the kitchen and enough toilet paper in the bathroom can be even harder. I’m focused on the day-to-day rather than the long term. What can I say? Life moves fast, even for an occasional slacker.
As I write this, Japan is reeling from a severe earthquake and tsunami. Thousands are homeless and displaced from their families. That is horrific enough just to watch on a screen. Surviving a disaster is something most of us can’t comprehend; imagine surviving and knowing that the most helpless ones in your family are lost, afraid, and suffering. We can teach children emergency preparedness, but pets are another issue.
Most of us don’t want to let our thoughts go there, but knowing we’ve prepared as much as we can for the unpredictable is empowering. Maybe a family member has been hospitalized and you need to be with them. Can you depend on a friend or neighbor to take your dog out for a potty break or to give her the medicine she needs? Say a water main breaks and you cannot return to your home tonight. Will your pets be able to access food for the next 24 to 48 hours? Will they be okay?
The first action you need to take is to enlist the help of a friend who is within walking distance or a neighbor that you trust. Give them a key to your home and any special instructions for your pets. Make sure your friend knows where your pets’ leashes, food, crates, and carriers are. The ideal would be to have an emergency kit assembled, not just for you but for your pets too.
What should be in a pet emergency kit? It should contain items such as:
• Food and water along with bowls for feeding
• A can opener for canned food if needed
• Pet medical records and medications in a Ziploc bag or other waterproof container
• Towels and bedding for a crate or carrier
• Leash and collar
• Veterinarian contact information
• Favorite toys to help soothe and relax your pet
• Cat litter, poop scoop bags, scoopers, and grooming items
It is also a good idea to have a recent photo and description of your pet with you should you have to give proof of ownership.
Next, you should make plans now in case you ever need to evacuate your home. Numerous pets were displaced from their families during Hurricane Katrina because shelters could not accept pets. Most emergency shelters will only accept service animals. Find out which hotels accept pets or which ones waive their no-pet policy in case of emergency. Check with friends or family outside of your area now to see if they’ll let you and your pet stay with them – your Aunt Suzy may be willing to help you but also may be deathly allergic to your pet. Check with veterinarians and pet boarding facilities to know what their emergency policies are ahead of time.
Most importantly, during an evacuation take your pets with you if at all possible! Pets can easily escape your home if there is a broken window or open space. Do not assume your pet will know their way home; in a disaster the once-familiar can be uprooted in seconds. Landmarks or scents can be wiped away, leaving your pet as lost as if they’d never lived in your area at all. Despite what emergency personnel predict, you have no concrete way of knowing exactly how long you’ll be gone. A few hours could turn into a few days or weeks. If it looks like evacuation is a possibility, leave now as opposed to later. If you wait until emergency officials must remove you, it’s possible you’ll be told to leave pets behind. It’s far better to have wasted some time and effort as opposed to abandoning pets. And please don’t even think of leaving your pet tied or chained in your yard during an evacuation. To put it bluntly, this is leaving your pet to die.
Lastly, when you are able to return home keep your pets confined. It may be best to keep your cat in a roomy carrier and your dog in a crate. Animals can sense chaos and displacement as much (if not more!) than humans. Your pet may run away out of fear or disorientation. Also remember that pets need adjustment to normalcy too. Be patient with them and give them the time they’ll need to calm down, re-acclimate, and re-establish routine.