Advice from the experts: How to protect your pets in a disaster

Q&A with Scotlund Haisley, senior director of emergency services for the Humane Society of the United States

A disaster can strike without warni ng, anywhere at any time. Some advance preparation, such as having an emergency supply kit and a family communication and evacuation plan, can be key to keeping your family safe. Your pets are important members of your family and should be included in all of your disaster preparedness plans. For advice on protecting your pets during disasters, APHA’s Get Ready campaign recently consulted Scotlund Haisley, senior director of emergency services for the Humane Society of the United States.

When we think of disasters and preparedness, we consider our children and families but often we don’t think of our pets. Is that correct?

Ycat named Clydees, and having a plan is key to the safety of your family during a disaster, and that plan should always include pets…that live with us in our homes (such as) dogs, cats, hamsters, rabbits and so forth. Depending on where you live, you could face any type of disaster, whether it be a natural disaster like a hurricane, earthquake or a flood…or we could have a biohazard disaster as well. So we should be prepared for any type of disaster. And the key to your preparedness is to first and foremost understand what the current disaster plan is within your community.

What’s the most important thing we need to know when we are preparing our pets for these disasters?

You should know what your community’s (emergency operations) plan is. If you don’t know, then contact your emergency management (office) and identify what they have in place for both you, your family and your pets. And the other key is to be prepared and have an emergency kit for your pets. That kit should include a three-day supply of food and drinking water as well as bowls, cat litter, a container to be used as a litter box, current photos and descriptions of your pets and up-to-date identification, including an additional tag with a phone number of someone out of the area in the event that your pet becomes lost (and) your number. (Your kit should also include) medications, medical records, a first aid kit stored in a waterproof container, sturdy leashes, harness and carriers to transport your pet safely (and) a blanket or towel to keep them warm. Carriers should be large enough to comfortably house your pet for several hours, if not days. Most of the supplies in your emergency kit should be non-perishable. You should check the kit every six months to be sure medications, food and water are still good.

How can we keep our pets calm during disasters?

It’s important to understand your plan and practice your plan with your pet. Identify a spot in your house that you would use to shelter-in-place or protect yourself from the elements. This would often be a closet or a basement. Take your pet into this area and offer them treats, making it a positive and safe place for your pets. Ensure your pets are comfortable riding in the car and spending time in their kennels. It could be (for) long periods of time. If your pet is especially nervous, you should coordinate with your veterinarian ahead of time about any calming medications that may be administered at the time of such an event or disaster.

If we are told to evacuate, what if the evacuation center doesn’t accept pets?

That’s why it’s important to understand your plan ahead of time. In October 2006, the president of the United States signed the (Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (or PETS) Act, which allows for any community to put a pet evacuation plan in place, and I haven’t seen a community not use it since it’s been enacted. But it’s important to understand that it is in place for your own community. You’ll also want to identify where the receiving centers are, and (if) those receiving centers for humans have a pet-friendly shelter attached. 

How do you find centers that accept pets? murphy the dog

The first phone call should be placed prior to any disaster, and that should be to your emergency management (office) to identify what areas they would be utilizing as their...emergency shelters, and  (if they) will they have a co-located shelter attached to that. And if not, where the animal receiving center (would) be. If you don’t have that information prior to the event, that information should be broadcast on the radio shortly after the disaster occurs. It would be a shelter for animals that’s not co-located with the human shelter. The ideal situation is that your community have in place a co-located animal shelter right near the shelter for humans, so that you can care for your own pet within feet, if not blocks away. If that’s not the case, then you would identify where to drop them off while you’re on your way out, and then go to the human shelters or wherever your destination would be.

What happens if a disaster strikes while we’re at school or at work, and we can’t get to our pets?

That’s where your disaster plan comes into play. You should make a plan with a trusted neighbor or relative who can always access your home and remove your animals if a disaster strikes when you are away.

If you get separated from your pets during a disaster, how can you find them afterward? This happened a lot during Hurricane Katrina. A lot of people were separated from their pets.

That’s a great question. That’s why you always want to have your animal tagged — have a collar and all of your contact information on that collar — as well as microchipped, because even if they lose that collar, there still will be a way to identify who owns that animal and where they live. 

Do you recommend microchipping?

We very much recommend microchipping. Again, in the event that your animal loses its collar or tag, or it’s an animal that can’t wear a collar or tag, then at least they can be identified through the microchip. And any receiving shelter in a disaster situation is going to have a scanner available and a protocol in place (to) microchip-scan each animal that comes through.

White cat named ErnieCould you briefly explain what (a microchip is)?

It’s a very small chip about the size of a grain of rice that’s inserted between the shoulder blades and (under) your pet’s skin. It has become a very standard practice. Most shelters can do it (and) most veterinary hospitals do it (and) it’s typically not very expensive. 

And it’s a painless procedure for the pet?

I don’t think any prick is entirely painless, but it’s not an invasive procedure at all. It is a one-time injection (under) your pet’s skin.

After a disaster, what behaviors might our pets exhibit?

Every situation is different. If you are staying at a large co-habitated shelter, your pet may be anxious and withdrawn or even show aggressive behavior. If you are not allowed to return to your home with your pet, be sure to monitor him or her daily and closely. Do not allow your pet outside unattended or allow them to drink or eat anything found outside, as many contaminated substances are released during disasters. Your pet or pets may be very anxious during this time, so take extra precautions to be sure that they do not get loose.

Do certain kinds or breeds of pets do better than others during disasters? Do dogs do better than cats, or vice versa?  Do you see any differences in animals?

All animals are individuals and they all have different temperaments. Typically, cats do not respond well to water so if we’re talking about a flood situation it certainly (can make it) much more difficult for the rescuer to get the animal. And where dogs are usually desperate to see us, the cat may be a little more fearful. The point we want to make here is we want to avoid the situation where your animal is in a stressful environment. If you deliver your animal to an emergency shelter, that animal is going to feel much more confident knowing that this is a safe place, opposed to them being left behind to fend for themselves.

When we leave our pets at home during the day and we go to work or go to school and there’s nobody at home, what can we do to ensure that they will be safe in the event that a fire breaks out?

The way you would prepare for a localized disaster within your home is the same way you prepare for a major disaster in the event that you’re not home. You’ve pre-identified a neighbor or a family member or friend who can be notified that there is (an) emergency at your home, and they can respond to care for your animal. Obviously if your house is on fire the only people that are going to be going into your house (are the) fire department. And one way you can notify them (that you have pets) is by posting one of those stickers on your front door telling them how many animals you have inside and what breeds and types they are.

Is there anything else you want to add (about preparing our pets for a disaster)?

The (Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards, or) PETS Act is the main point here. Because of Hurricane Katrina and the disaster that occurred post-Katrina, the PETS Act was enacted. It works. It saves lives and it has proven to save hundreds of thousands of lives since Hurricane Katrina. So understand how it works in your community, how it’s applied in your community, and utilize it.

— Interview conducted, edited and condensed January 2010 by Teddi Dineley Johnson, The Nation’s Health, APHA

For information about preparing your pets for disaster, visit the Humane Society of the United States' Web site or download the free Get Ready pet preparedness fact sheet (PDF).

Posted Feb. 18, 2010