What to do in an emergency
We never dreamed we’d have to worry about a disaster in our area,” says Kiera. “We live on a hill, so it never floods here, and this isn’t an earthquake or hurricane zone.” What she didn’t count on was a chemical fire at a nearby factory that filled the sky with toxic black smoke and forced her to evacuate.
Kiera never dreamed of leaving her two cats behind, but she admits she was poorly prepared to take them with her. “They weren’t used to going anywhere except the vet once a year, and I had to pull my closet apart to even get their carriers out. And then I forgot to take any cat food with me. Luckily, we could go home next day, but it was a stressful experience for all of us. Next time, I’ll be ready.”
There were more than 75 weather-related disasters in the United States alone last year, and scientists are predicting even more in years to come. And this doesn’t take into account manmade crises such as fires and chemical spills. According to a study by the American Humane Association, 47% of animal lovers would refuse to be rescued in a disaster if it meant leaving their companions behind. So wherever you live, it’s important to have an emergency plan that includes your dogs or cats.
New law includes animals
During Hurricane Katrina, we were bombarded with heartbreaking stories of people being forced to leave their animals behind when the region was evacuated. Many of those dogs and cats ended up stranded on rooftops in the ensuing flood, or left alone to die in the debris. This tragedy was a clear sign to animal welfare professionals and emergency management personnel at both state and “ federal levels that planning for disasters needed to include companion animals. Representatives from both sides have worked together to initiate new legislation. In 2006, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act came into law. It requires state and local emergency management agencies to consider the needs of animals in their emergency preparedness and evacuation plans during a major disaster or emergency.
But individuals also need to do their part to help prepare for the unexpected. With another hurricane season coming, now is the best time to get ready.
Covering your bases
1 Start by writing out a plan with your family. Where will you go if you need to evacuate? Who in the household will be in charge of packing up your animal? If you plan on going to a hotel, is there one that accepts animals? You also should have a backup plan in the event you are not at home when a disaster strikes. Will a neighbor be able to get to your companion? After all these details are arranged, post your plan on the refrigerator as a reminder, and even if it sounds silly, rehearse it with your family.
2 Make sure your animal has current ID tags and a microchip. A microchip is important because your dog or cat can easily lose his collar in a disaster situation. Many rescue organizations offer free or low cost microchip clinics. Include the phone number of a friend or family member who lives outside your area on the ID tag, just in case you are unable to use your own phones, a common situation during many disasters.
•Three days’ worth of food, water and any medication your animal might be on.
• Important paperwork such as copies of your animal’s medical records. Some people like to store valuable information in a small leak-proof, fireproof safety box so they can grab it and go in a hurry.
• A spare collar and ID tag; include your cell phone number and a friend or family member’s contact information.
• Photos of you with your animal – a picture can help identify him if he’s lost, or help prove that he’s yours.
• A leash and harness; even well-trained dogs might get scared and try to run off during a storm.
• Favorite toy; playing with a familiar toy can keep your animal calm in a stressful situation.
• Animal first aid kit including a cotton bandage roll, bandage tape, scissors, Rescue Remedy and other natural remedies.
• A portable carrier, large enough for your animal to stand and turn around in.
• If you have cats, you’ll need to take a litter box and litter.
• Heat stroke can be a risk if the weather is hot. Some companies make cooling vests that can help guard against this danger; the Cool Vest from Gramercy Distribution is one example.
What not to do
Remember – if it’s not safe for you, it’s not safe for your animal. Never leave him at home or tethered in the backyard when you evacuate. Don’t assume he’ll be okay at home with a few days’ supply of food and water.
In a disaster, you never know when you might be able to return home. A few days could turn into weeks, depending on the severity of the disaster. For the safety of both you and your companion, when it looks like you will need to evacuate, do so quickly, calmly and using the plan you put in place before the disaster struck.
If you do not have a plan in place when a disaster strikes, or were not able to find anywhere ahead of time to shelter your animal, check to see if any temporary animal shelters will be set up near human shelters. Since Katrina, many communities have worked to co-locate animal and human shelters to help ease the stress and make it easier for people to take care of their companions while waiting to go home.
Want to do more?
Groups like American Humane organize and perform animal rescue before, during and after disasters. These organizations are always looking for volunteers willing to be trained and deployed to areas where animals need the most help. These volunteers have saved the lives of thousands of animals over the years.
You don’t have to have a background in veterinary medicine, just a sincere willingness to help. For more information on American Humane’s animal rescue services, go to americanhumane.org/redstar.