Preparing for the Worst Disaster Possible with your Pets

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

Preparing for the Worst Disaster Possible with your Pets


The subject for this blog article was intended to be a light and warm review of pets and their family members world-wide as observed by my wife and I as we recently traveled through five countries while on a 17-day river cruise in Europe. However, that subject will have to wait until another time. Circumstances have prompted me to write on a current issue that faces many families across the Southeast United States as this is being written. I feel compelled to send out yet another missive pleading for people to take the time to prepare for disasters and emergencies that may confront you and your pets. Yes, this message is coming for those in the path of the wind and flood damage that is sure to happen as Hurricane Irma points toward the heavily populated areas of Florida. Just a few hours ago, Hurricane Irma tore through the Caribbean Islands, the Florida Keys and is now bearing down on Miami and Naples, Florida with a projected path of destruction that may include most of the Florida Peninsula and much of the Southeast costal states bringing with its fury massive destruction by wind and flooding as far north as Tennessee and the Carolinas. I am aware that my message is relative to closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. But, being late in making an emergency and disaster plan for your pets is better than not planning at all, and when the next disaster hits, having again to say, “I wish I had made plans before the disaster hit!” Hurricanes Andrew (1992), Katrina (2005), Sandy (2012), Harvey and now Irma paying the United States a visit within a two-week period should be ample evidence that disasters do and will happen. Please take the time to be prepared.

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. Tornados, 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 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.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has declared September as Disaster Preparedness Month. Emergencies and disasters can come in many forms and preparation for such emergencies should include the four-legged members of your family, your pets. 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.

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. 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. 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 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. Allow uninterrupted rest and sleep to allow animals to recover from the trauma and stress over the situation.

The American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMF) is the charitable arm of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). For more than 55 years, the AVMF has been dedicated to advancing the well-being and medical care of animals. I was a member of the Board of Directors of the AVMF for seventeen years prior to my retirement. Charitable contributions and support to the foundation help veterinarians help animals. The foundation supports local veterinary first responders who gather up lost pets that have been separated from their families. These rescued animals then may be taken to private animal hospitals for medical care and nutritional support until their rightful owners can be located. These local response teams consist of veterinarians, veterinary technicians and other volunteers who undergo rigorous training in disaster and emergency preparedness and are dispatched as the need arises when emergencies occur in their state to provide assistance to first responders, pet owners and veterinarians as needed. Please consider donating to the AVMF on behalf of the animals that are in the path of this current natural disaster. To order the disaster preparedness booklet, “Saving the Whole Family”, produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association go to www.avma.org and to make donations to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation go to http://www.avmf.org . I have done so and I am sure the animals will appreciate it.

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. 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.



Bruce W. Little, DVM