A glance at a weather map in the summer usually shows tropical disturbances lining up in Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf waters, as peak hurricane season approaches. Each year, millions of communities face the risk of forest fires as the air gets warmer and drier. And earthquakes and tornadoes strike with little warning.
No one can tell you exactly when and where the next man-made or natural disaster will strike. Planning ahead and being prepared will help keep your family, including pets, intact or can help reunite families and lost pets.
The protection of pets during calamity was strengthened with the agreement between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). These organizations have agreed to cooperate in developing evacuation and sheltering plans for pets. Familiarizing yourself with your community's disaster plans is an important first step in safeguarding yourself and your pets.
The following true story underscores the importance of having a plan.
Don't Be Caught Unprepared
Hurricane Floyd, a Category 5 storm, roared up the East Coast in September 1999. Its floods wreaked havoc on pets and their owners. Like thousands of others, Bridget, a 12-year-old Beagle-mix, had her life turned upside down.
Officials knocked on the door and told Bridget's owner Margaret to leave her home in Manville, N.J., immediately. A flood was imminent. For health reasons, emergency public shelters allow only service animals inside. So Margaret tied Bridget in the kitchen, near her food bowl, to keep her safe.
Water seeped in under the door. Bridget jumped on the kitchen table. It began to float. When the water calmed down, her leash was tangled in debris. She could barely move. Two days later, animal rescue workers found her starving and terrified atop a 6-foot pile of rubble. They freed her, and she made it back to Margaret.
They were among the fortunate. In Floyd's aftermath, hundreds of cats, dogs and other house pets drowned, suffered wild animal bites, or barely survived intestinal parasites from drinking sewage water. Although the University of North Carolina Veterinary School and other clinics treated hundreds of injured animals, many never saw their owners again.
Start Planning Now
If you're ordered to evacuate, “do everything you can to take your pets with you,” warns Howard White, media relations director for HSUS. “Domestic animals need human care to survive.” The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advises you to plan ahead and follow the HSUS disaster plan for your pets. It's similar to the one you have for the rest of your family.
- Keep a list of all your cats, their names, breed, sex, color, age and any special characteristics. Also list their favorite hiding places.
- Be sure your pet always wears a collar that fits properly and has current I.D. and rabies tags affixed securely. You might also consider microchipping. Proof of ownership is very important, so also copy adoption or purchase papers, including microchip information.
- Keep your pets' medical records, including rabies and other inoculations, up to date. Emergency kennels or animal shelters may require them.
- Have a lightweight, strong carrier or crate for each pet. Use a crate approved for airline travel, not cardboard. Cats may pose special problems, since they often resist being confined. Regularly play games with them, using toys and food in and around the kennel, so your cats grow comfortable with it.
- If you go to a public shelter, your pet needs other accommodations. Research your options now. Call local emergency management officials to see if they've planned for pet shelters. Survey boarding kennels or veterinary clinics along evacuation routes, to ask their emergency policies. Call motels to see if they allow people with pets in emergencies. If nothing's available, arrange for relatives or friends in a safe area to hold your pets while your home is off limits.
- Many families designate a person in another town as the contact to call if family members are separated during a disaster.
- Find a willing neighbor to care for your pets in case you are not at home when a disaster occurs. Make sure the neighbor has a key to your home, is familiar with your pets and knows where your evacuation and first-aid supplies are kept.
- Provide a signed letter releasing your neighbor from responsibility and a signed veterinary medical treatment authorization form.
- Keep a permanent, waterproof “Pets Live Here” sign near your doorbell, alerting emergency workers to the kind and number of pets inside.
- Carry several wallet photos of each pet.
- Keep a list of important emergency telephone numbers. Include the phone number of your planned evacuation site, a local contact person, an out of state contact person, your veterinarian, an alternate veterinarian at least 30 miles away, a local boarding facility and an alternate boarding facility at least 30 miles away. Also include lists of hotels nearby that accept pets.
Additional handy phone numbers include animal control, police, fire, public health department, local humane organization, animal shelter and local Red Cross chapter.
Prepare a Pet Emergency 'Kit to Go'
Keep your evacuation kit and first-aid kit together. You may be away for a day or a week, so be prepared with the following supplies, kept in a duffle bag or covered container, preferably on wheels:
- Medical records and medications in a waterproof container.
- A first-aid kit.
- Current printed and digital photos of your pets, in case a rescuer needs to post it on the Internet.
- One weeks worth of food, drinking water and litter. Don't forget a can opener, litter box and bowls.
- Information on your pet's habits, medications, feeding times and your veterinarian's name and number.
- A waterproof marking pen to add last-minute directions to tags or labels.
- Your pet's favorite toys, if you have room.
When It's Time to Leave
At the first sign of a threatening storm or fire, keep your pets in your home. Speak to them in a calm voice. They often sense danger in the air well in advance, and could get frightened and run away or hide. If there's any doubt, leave ahead of evacuation time, to be sure you can take your pets with you.
Internet to the Rescue
The Internet provides an opportunity for reuniting pets and their humans as never before. When wildfires in Los Alamos, N.M., separated pets from their families, the Santa Fe Animal Shelter took pictures of rescued animals and posted them on their Web site. Having first used the Internet system after the Oklahoma City super-tornado, the HSUS now includes Internet guidelines in their disaster procedures.
A New Attitude
Just a few years back, emergency agencies advised evacuating people to leave their pets locked safely in a windowless room on a high floor, preferably in a bathroom with a counter and enough food and water for a week, and separate rooms for each species. We now know that this should be done only as a last resort.
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