Prepare for a Pet Emergency

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

August is the beginning of the South Atlantic Hurricane Season. In fact, it was exactly ten years ago in August 2005 that the most devastating hurricane to hit American shores struck the Gulf States bringing high winds, power outages, floods and extensive damage to areas such as New Orleans, and Biloxi, Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina brought with it all the ravages of a tropical hurricane: storm surge, high winds, spawned tornadoes, torrential rains that contributed to the flooding, and caused power outages that prevented refrigeration units, air conditioning units, transportation channels, governments, grocery and other supply stores to malfunction or not function at all. People were ordered to immediately evacuate their homes and businesses only to find out upon arrival at the storm shelter facilities; such as, the Super Bowl or the New Orleans Convention Center they were not allowed to bring their pets with them into the shelters. People lined up for public transportation on buses and trains for movement away from the storm’s path, only to find they were not allowed to take their pets with them on the only method of escape from the storm. Panic set in! Some dumped their pets in the street as they loaded on buses for their only way out of town, or as they moved through the lines to gain access to one of the public storm shelters designated as a “haven for people, but not for pets”. Some chose to disregard the order to evacuate and stay in the area because they could not take their pets with them, much to the demise of many of the people and their pets. People and pets died in the ensuing storm and tens of thousands of pets were turned loose onto the streets because of these laws and regulations. Many of the rescued pets from Hurricane Katrina are still being located at animal shelters, adoption centers and foster homes across America. It was a beautiful outpouring of compassion for people and pets in distress. If it can be said there was anything good to come out of Hurricane Katrina, it is that today, most governmental units have changed their laws to include pets in the evacuation process away from danger in the face of an emergency. Those resultant changes brings comfort to millions of pet owners throughout America.

For those who believe they live outside the areas that may have exposure to hurricanes, there is no cause for lack of preparation for emergency or disaster situations. Tornadoes, earthquakes, flooding, fires (both structural and wild fires), severe weather conditions such as blizzards, man-made disasters such as chemical spills or nuclear spills both by railroad derailment or transportation truck accidents, terrorism or bio-terrorism are constant reminders that none of us live in a protected zone from emergency and disaster preparedness needs. We should all develop an emergency and disaster plan that includes all human and animal family members. Do not wait until it is too late. All too frequently, people are told to leave their homes for a “short period of time”, only to find they cannot return to their homes for days or even weeks. It is best to be overly cautious when a disaster advisory or warning has been issued. Take your pets with you when you evacuate. Preparing ahead of time and acting quickly are the best ways to keep you and your family, including your pets, out of danger. Familiarize yourself with each type of emergency or disaster that is common in your area of the country. Be prepared for the possible disruption of services for extended periods of time, including gas, electricity, telephone, internet service, and local sources of food, water and fuel for both your home and automobile. Have a plan in place and practice the plan prior to a disaster. This will help you successfully evacuate and maintain the safety of your family including your animals.

Talk to your veterinarian about what you should include in a disaster plan. Assemble an animal evacuation kit and develop a plan that includes your pets. Remember, the most logical evacuation route may be overloaded with cars, people and emergency vehicles who have the same plan. Create a Plan B and Plan C for alternate routes and methods of evacuation. Identify alternate sources of food and water. In case you are not at home when the emergency strikes, place stickers on the front and back doors of the house to notify neighbors, fire fighters, police, military units and other rescue personnel of animals on your property. Keep a list of the species, number and locations of your animals noting any special hiding places each pet may be inclined to use. Remember, animals can become frightened and unpredictable in the company of strangers. Keep muzzles and animal restraints where rescue personnel can find them. Make an arrangement with a willing neighbor who will tend to your animals in the face of an emergency. You can return the favor in case they are not home when an emergency presents itself. Practice rescue and removal plans with your neighbors to make the evacuation the most efficient and effective. Include a letter signed by you that releases your neighbor from any responsibility should your animal be injured during evacuation. You may also want to have a signed medical treatment authorization in your evacuation kit that will provide the necessary authorization for any medical services necessary for your pets.

Prepare an emergency and disaster evacuation kit to keep in a noted location in your home. Assemble the kit in an easy-to-carry waterproof container and store in an accessible area away from moisture and temperature extremes. Consult your veterinarian regarding recommended first aid books, first aid kit items and how to administer medications. A cage or carrier is necessary for each pet. The kit should include copies of veterinary records and proof of ownership, including a picture of you or a family member with the pet for proof of identification and ownership. All pets should be microchipped with the identification number registered with the company that manufactured the chip. Note the microchip number in the evacuation kit. It is recommended that you place a two weeks supply of food and water in the kits. It is best to store both dry and canned food for endurance and place the fresh water in plastic one gallon jugs. Replace the food, water, and medications as often as needed to maintain freshness and according to expiration dates for medicines. If medications that require special handling, such as refrigeration, are necessary list the medications and reference the location where they can be found. Other essential items in the evacuation kits should include a flashlight with batteries, dietary and medication instructions, leash and collar or harness, litter and litter pan, no-spill food and water dishes, newspapers for bedding, trash bags and any special toys or chew items that will help to reduce anxiety and fear in your particular pet.

Evacuate your family, including your pets, as early as possible after the evacuation notice has been given by authorities. Immediately, bring your pets indoors making sure all animals have some sort of identification securely fastened to them. Again, microchips offer the best chance of recovery of your pets. According to a study reported in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in July 2009 (by Lord, et. al.), dogs without microchips were returned to their owners 21.9% of the time, whereas microchipped dogs were returned to their owners 52.2% of the time. Cats without microchips were united with their owners only 1.8% of the time, whereas microchipped cats were back home 38.5% of the time. It is difficult to argue with these statistics. Place all pets in individual transportable carriers with locks on the doors so the pets cannot escape the cage. Place leashes on large dogs so if they do break out of the cage, they can be caught immediately. When stressed, animals that usually get along may become aggressive with each other or their handlers. Load the pet carriers and the evacuation kit items in your vehicle. Call the prearranged animal friendly evacuation site to confirm availability of space and beat the crowd out of town. You will be glad you responded quickly.

After the emergency is over and the all-clear sign has been posted, return to your home with your animals. Survey the area inside and outside of your home to identify sharp objects, dangerous materials, dangerous wildlife, contaminated water, downed power lines, or other hazards. Examine all animals closely and contact your veterinarian immediately if you observe signs of illness or injury. If your usual veterinarian practices in the same community as your home, you might have to rely on a second or substitute veterinarian if the disaster effected your primary animal hospital in some way. You should keep an animal hospital in a nearby community in reserve by noting the telephone number and location should you need to call on that establishment. Release dogs and cats indoors only. They could encounter dangerous wildlife and debris if allowed outside unsupervised and unrestrained. Familiar scents and landmarks may have changed, and this can confuse your animals. Reintroduce food in small servings, gradually working up to full portions if animals have been without food for a prolonged period of time. Allow uninterrupted rest and sleep to allow animals to recover from the trauma and stress over the situation.

Disasters can strike at any time and at any place. Be prepared with all family members by having an evacuation plan, an evacuation kit and numerous practice sessions in place. Written instructions, both for emergency first responders and family members may save time and lives. The Boy Scout Motto: BE PREPARED! Is as effective when planning for emergencies as it is in any other situation. Lives, money and anxiety can be spared with proper emergency and disaster planning. And that makes for a better life for all family members, including the animals in our lives.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to check back for more articles from Bruce W. Little, DVM on Veterinarians.com, and follow him on Twitter @DrBruceLittle!