Protect your pets during emergencies

Consumer Reports News: August 31, 2006 12:09 AM

Starving and bedraggled dogs, cats, and other animals are still very much a part of the disturbing images of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. In August 2005, as the Category 5 hurricane bore down on the Gulf Coast, few shelters and evacuation plans for people accommodated pets. Many evacuees were forced to either leave their companion animals behind or risk their own lives by remaining in the path of the storm.

Animal agencies and volunteers rescued more than 10,000 animals on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Even more were believed to be lost. Now in the 2006 hurricane season, federal, state, and local governments are taking steps to ensure that evacuees never have to face leaving pets behind. While no devastating storms have reached U.S. landfall this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in an early-August '06 update, still predicted above-average activity this season, with seven to nine hurricanes forming in the Atlantic basin.

One of the major problems last year was not only lack of preparation but also lack of information, according to Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. "If people did evacuate with their pets, they didn't know which shelters allowed pets," Markarian says. "Many people refused to evacuate because they could not take pets with them, and many people even died because they were not allowed to take their best friend."

On Aug. 4, 2006, the Senate unanimously passed its version of the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act. Similar to a bill passed by the House of Representatives in May 2006, the Senate's version includes additional provisions to ensure that animal evacuation plans are made before disaster strikes. Further, it gives the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) the authority to help develop disaster plans for pets, and it allows federal funds for states to set up emergency shelters for people and their pets. The House can either pass the Senate version or bring it to conference, where a committee made up of members of both chambers can reconcile the differences.

In the meantime, several state and local governments are forging ahead with their own pet-evacuation policies. Some examples:

  • California: The state senate is currently holding hearings on a bill that would require all state and local agencies to implement emergency-response plans that consider animals.
  • Galveston, Texas: Pets are allowed to accompany evacuees on buses.
  • Miami-Dade County, Florida: Two shelters that allow evacuees with pets are available. Owners must register pets in advance.
  • New York City: The transit authority allows dogs and cats on subways and buses during an evacuation. Animals would have to be leashed and muzzled, and owners would have to provide proof of licensing and shots.
  • Suffolk County, New York: The county has established one pet-friendly shelter.

Markarian believes that keeping pets safe in a time of crisis is important to the human-relief effort. "Two-thirds of families in the United States have pets," Markarian says. "If you lose your job, home, place of worship, and you have hardly anything left, having your pet with you or knowing your pet is safe is important emotional support."

Indeed, a May 2006 survey of pet owners by the American Kennel Club found that in the event of a disaster, 97 percent would take pets with them during an evacuation; 62 percent would refuse to evacuate if pets could not come with them; and 61 percent have a pet-evacuation plan.

Prepare your pets
When it comes to protecting all family members--those with two legs and those with four (and even those pets without any legs)--it's essential to plan ahead. See our Storm & Emergency Guide for advice on preparing for and dealing with the aftermath of disasters. Both the Humane Society and the ASPCA Web sites provide extensive information on pet evacuation. Here are some guidelines:

Don't evacuate without your pets. Even if you believe you're evacuating for only one day, plan for the worst-case scenario. In unpredictable circumstances, pets could be trapped, or escape and risk exposure to life-threatening hazards, or starve. If it's not safe for humans, it's not safe for animals.

Determine your evacuation destination. Find facilities before there's an imminent threat. Ask family and friends if they're willing and able to take in you and your pets should a crisis occur. Check with hotels to find which allow animals. Contact your local emergency-response agencies and find out which shelters allow animals and any requirements, such as medical records. Check with boarding and kennel facilities, veterinary offices, and animal shelters to see whether they provide emergency boarding.

Form a buddy system. Make a plan with trusted neighbors or friends who can evacuate your pets if you're not at home when a crisis strikes. Pet-sitting services may also assist you if you make arrangements in advance. Make sure the designated party knows where to find your pets and any evacuation supplies and where to meet you afterward.

Post pet-rescue stickers. Place emergency pet-rescue stickers on all entry doors to your home as well as your windows. These stickers, available through the Humane Society and ASPCA Web sites, should list which kind and how many pets are in the house and your contact information. If you evacuate with your pets, write "Evacuated" on all stickers so that rescuers don't look for pets that are already safe.

Keep pets safe during a storm. If you plan to ride out a crisis at home, confine your pet inside your home before a storm arrives. If evacuation is imminent, keep animals ready in carriers, along with identification, supplies, and medical information.

After the storm has passed, continue to keep pets comfortable, but confined. Familiar landmarks and scents may have changed, causing agitated animals to be confused and lost. Further, a storm may have created outside hazards.

Learn first aid. The American Red Cross Web site provides important information on first aid for humans, dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, and other animals. The organization's book "Pet First Aid" is available for $12.95 through the site or at your local Red Cross chapter. Your pet's first-aid kit should include gauze pads, gauze roll or bandages, cloth roll, thermometer, tweezers, hydrogen peroxide, antibiotic ointment, cotton swabs, an instant cold pack, and rags or rubber tubing for tourniquets. Speak to your veterinarian about other supplies your pet might need.

The bare necessities
If an emergency does occur, here's what you need to take with you.

  • Harnesses, carriers, crates, and cages. Harnesses are better than collars for safety and security. Each pet should have its own crate, cage, or carrier. Be sure to include comfortable bedding, such as old blankets, and any toys to help your pet feel more secure.
  • ID, contact information, and medical records. All pets should have ID tags with emergency-contact information in case you become separated. Write the same information in indelible marker on the pet carrier. Include feeding and medical information, as well as a description of any pertinent behavioral issues. Keep a copy of records and identification photos of your pet with you at all times.
  • Food, water, and medicine. Pack three to seven days' worth of nonperishable food and water for your pet, as well as a week's supply of any necessary medicine. Take separate bowls for food and water.
  • Sanitation. Pack paper towels, liquid dish soap, a small bottle of household bleach, and a package of garbage bags. This will keep an already difficult situation from getting any messier.

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