Emergency Preparedness and Pets

by Anne Killpack

Emergency Preparations for your Pets

Most of us in California are aware that disaster could strike at any time – earthquakes, landslides, floods and fire are a part of our native landscape. But when we think about preparedness, we don’t always remember that our beloved companions need to be included in plans for evacuations, sheltering in place, and other disaster reactions.

You should have an emergency survival kit for yourself, of course – your pets need you! For prepacked kits, local Cole Hardware may have some, and the Red Cross store sells some good ones, as well as booklets on basic first aid and medicine for pets. You can also make your own to the 72hours.org recipe, which is more time-consuming but cheaper.

First things first: evacuation. Do you have enough pet carriers for all your animals? Hard-side pet carriers that have been disassembled aren’t ready to grab in an emergency. Enter the emergency stuff bag.

In a serious emergency, stuff the pet in a pillowcase and tie the top off with whatever you've got. Those drawstring mesh laundry bags are also great emergency carriers. Both let enough air through so the pet can breathe, and are dirt cheap enough that you can afford to have enough in the house for every pet. Double up the mesh bags for added security, or look for the rubberized versions used by animal care workers. Heavier mesh will also keep pointy claws and chewing pets from making a hole quite as fast. (Consider keeping a few of these things in your car as a backup, just like you would for yourself. Those laundry bags come in handy.)

The better version is a soft-sided carrier you can fold up easily so it doesn't take up space, but still lets you grab it and the pets quickly in an emergency. You can buy soft-sided carriers with shoulder straps or wheels, and pockets for emergency or travel supplies. Some professionals offer cardboard fold-up-from-flat boxes to transport cats, but these aren't waterproof and take time to assemble, so for emergencies a stuff-sack is preferred to cardboards. While a laundry bag won’t protect your pet from rain or wind, at least it won’t disintegrate in water.

Another, fancier version of the bag is the evac-sak, a sturdier version of the laundry bag, with a shoulder strap, reflective piping, reinforcement and so on. Invented for safe evacuation of animal shelters, it’s used and recommended by many animal agencies. Standard soft-sided pet carriers also work well. For large dogs and other pets too big to bag, keep a spare leash or harness with tags in your evacuation kit.

You should also prepare a second bag with your pets’ ID, recent photos, any medications, a leash or harness, copies of the pet's records, preserved food, water, emergency contact info (not just yours - have a backup in case you get separated) and any other needs. If you have multiple pets, you can probably combine this into one big bag of food, litter, papers etc. or even into the human evacuation kit, but try to keep the pet stuff with the pets once you're out of danger. A pair of heavy gardening-style gloves will come in handy for grabbing and stuffing a panicked animal into the bag in the first place, as well as treating injured ones. Towels are always useful for wrapping injured or wet animals or padding a bedding area. Consider a spare sweater or rain gear for easily chilled animals, and a handful of instant-heat hand-warmer style packets might keep reptiles warmer in an emergency (but be sure not to let the pet too near the warmer bag, lest it be opened or eaten! Try wrapping it in a towel). You can find dried pet food (not just kibble, but dehydrated meat) at better pet stores and online. And there's all sorts of preserved and dried meat snacks that people and pets can both eat - tuna packs are handy for emergencies and last a while. Freezer bags of dry food and litter, a flat cardboard or plastic tray for a litter pan (or an old cake pan), plastic bags to dispose of wastes, and anything else your pet would need for several days should be in the kit.

(Aldyth adds: I also recommend a bottle of Bach's Rescue Remedy! This flower essence is excellent for helping all beings through instances of trauma, and can be very calming for you as well! Do not try to give your animal Rescue Remedy directly from the glass dropper, in case they panic and bite it, but put a few drops on your fingers and rub it inside their ears or between their toe pads. If they are docile enough you can rub some on their gums, but again, watch out for teeth!)

All pets, whenever possible, should have collars or harnesses with tags and ID, even if they're chipped - the fire department or Red Cross don't tend to have a chip reader on hand in emergencies, much less volunteer rescuers. At least keep tags and harnesses in the emergency kit. Just as you should send copies of important information to a family member or good friend who lives farther away (and hopefully out of the disaster zone), send recent photos and information about your pets to your emergency contact.

Don’t forget to keep your smoke detectors working and regularly checked - the Fire Department generally recommends checking them and any other household detectors every 6 months, or at the time when Daylight Savings swaps over and you have to check all the clocks anyway. I suggest the spring and fall equinoxes, myself. This is also a great time to check your pet and household disaster preparedness plans, go through your supplies, age out any expired medication or food (for pets and humans) and so on.

Include your pets in household emergency drills. Animals are prone to panic if people are panicking, but if everyone has learned to react quickly and safely when the fire alarm goes off, everyone will be safer. Give pets treats and reassurance after evacuation practice, and maybe they’ll come to associate being flung in a bag with treats! Okay, that never works. But get used to being able to grab a cat by the scruff and shove it in a bag in a hurry before Fluffy hides under the bed. You know this takes two hands even when Fluffy’s cooperating, so try holding the laundry bag in your teeth – or buy a better one which will hold itself open.

Other good things to have: window stickers letting emergency personnel know there's pets in the place and how many and what species (your fire department may have these, or the ASPCA, or make your own). If you evacuate, cross out the sign or add one saying the pets are safe. Think of those volunteers in boats out rescuing pets after Katrina struck New Orleans, and spare them from having to break into your house to try and rescue the cat you’ve already taken out of town.

When evacuating a large area, some emergency shelters may not be able to take animals. It's a really good idea to have a not-too-nearby friend or relative picked out ahead of time who can shelter you and your pets in case of earthquake/tornado/flood/etc. Shelters are beginning to be better about taking animals whenever they can, but in a really dire situation people have to come first. Talk to other evacuees and see if you can find a place to set up a temporary pet shelter and care area that won’t be in the way of emergency work.

Service animals are supposed to be exempted from rules that bar animals, even in emergencies. If you live with a service animal, make sure to have a copy of its paperwork and a harness/coat identifying it as such in the evacuation kit. A high-visibility harness would be a good idea. Please don’t claim that Fluffy is a service bunny just so you can keep your pet with you! This sort of behavior makes it harder for those who have legitimate medical needs for their trained service partners.

A hard-core pet emergency preparation can even include first aid training for you. Ask your local Red Cross or vet about taking a class in pet first aid. Knowing what to do in a pet’s medical emergency can save a pet’s life, and maybe save you a vet bill! But always, always call a vet if your pet’s been seriously ill, injured, or exposed to smoke or toxins. It’s always better to be safe.

For more information, please check out:

ASPCA disaster preparedness.

FEMA's pet preparation page.

72hours' pet page.