Imagine you’re at work when a storm warning is announced. You thought you’d be able to go home and pick up your dog before finding shelter, but your neighborhood is closed to everyone except emergency workers. Even residents aren’t allowed in. Who will retrieve your dog? Is there anything you can do to protect him?
Sadly, with fires, floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters on the rise, this seemingly implausible scenario is playing out in communities across America, with dire consequences for pets whose owners can’t reach them. Sometimes they die in the home; other times, they flee in terror and are never found.
“There is no systematic way of tracking lost and found pets during disasters, and it’s something that is needed,” says Ashley Farmer, co-author with disaster planning expert Sarah DeYoung, of All Creatures Safe and Sound: The Social Landscape of Pets in Disasters (Buy from Amazon, $34.95). “In the research we did, we talked to some pet owners who found their lost pets, and some whose pets were never found, likely having perished in the disaster.”
Out of desperation, she says, many pet owners turn to social media groups to post about lost and found animals, or to share information from local shelters about found pets. These efforts do not have a high success rate, so they also resort to any other measures they can think of. “After a wildfire in California, we came across a tent in a neighborhood that had pictures posted of pets that were reunited with owners and also lost pets never found.”
Why do pets get left behind in natural disasters?
There are various reasons that pets get cut off from families in disasters, notes Farmer, a professor of criminal justice at Illinois State University. “Sometimes they are left behind because people mistakenly assume they will be able to return quickly from wherever they stay during the emergency. This is one of the reasons that people try to reenter disaster zones before it is safe.” Other times the owners are at work and can’t get home to their pets in time. “And yet other times pets just get stressed and scared and run off,” before anyone can get to them, “because the disaster presents such an unfamiliar environment to them,” Farmer explains.
Making matters worse, many evacuees from disasters end up having to surrender their pets when their homes are destroyed, especially if their emergency housing doesn’t allow for animals.
Making a pet rescue plan is key.
The best thing you can do to avoid facing such a tragedy is to plan ahead for the myriad things that can go wrong in a disaster. “Have proper pet carriers and leashes always ready to go” for a fast getaway, says Farmer. Having proper identification on your pet, including an ID tag and microchip with the dog’s name, family phone number, and address, is also essential. Having a recent photo of your pet is helpful too. Farmer also strongly recommends implanting a microchip in your dog with an ID number and all relevant contact info; vets and shelters can scan it to identify your dog and inform you they’ve found him. Ideally, register the microchip with a pet recovery service that has access to different microchip databases and technology, and can check against hundreds of registries’ databases.
Set pet recovery strategies for different types of disasters.
Stray animals without homes after disasters are at risk of dying due to starvation, wild animals, flooding, fire, injury, and other threats. Many steps can be taken to protect them before and after they’re lost, however, depending on the kind of disaster.
- The Red Cross maintains that the best way to protect your dogs from a fire is to include them in your family plan. When you practice your escape plan, practice taking them with you. Make sure you have rigorously trained them to come when you call. When you evacuate, do your best to keep your dog with you and arrange in advance for a shelter that accepts pets. It’s also a good idea to identify hotels and motels outside your immediate area that accept dogs.
- Just as you prepare a disaster kit for your family, make an evacuation kit for your dog as well, including food and water for at least seven days, a two-week supply of medicines, a week’s worth of cage liners in case your dog can’t get outside to relieve himself, a feeding dish, a water bowl, and liquid dish soap, as well as toys and treats to keep him occupied.
- Arrange in advance for a safe place for your dog to stay if you need to leave your home and can’t bring her with you. This not only includes someone who can take in your dog on a temporary basis if you’re displaced for a while or can’t get back home, but also potential permanent parents who can give your dog a good life if something happens to you. Friends, relatives, doggy day care centers, and no-kill shelters out of the danger zone are all possibilities, so check with them in advance. Ask your vet for a list of preferred boarding kennels and your local animal shelter if they provide emergency shelter for dogs.
- Make sure one or more potential rescuers that you trust have access to your home (a key, for example) in case you can’t get there in time, and check that your dog is comfortable with them entering your home.
- When you’re away from home, keep dogs near entrances, where firefighters can easily find them. Make sure their collars and leashes are at the ready.
- Affix a pet alert window sticker to your front window with the types and number of pets inside your house. This will save rescuers time in locating your pets. The sticker should also include your contact info and the name and phone number of your veterinarian. If you manage to evacuate with your dogs, remove the sticker or at least write “EVACUATED” across it so rescuers can get on to the work of saving others.
Hurricanes and Other Storms
- Make sure your dog has an ID tag and microchip, says Phyllis Sollars, who has worked as a volunteer and foster pet parent for Last Day Dog Rescue for five years. “Some storms can destroy or knock down fences, allowing pets to run away, and even if they’re not runners, loud noises such as thunderclaps can scare them and cause them to take shelter elsewhere.” If these things happen, ID tags and microchips are your best bet of finding your dog again.
- Lightning flashes, thunderclaps, and the uprooting caused by hurricanes can seriously terrify your dogs, but there are medications that can help reduce their anxiety. There are also other calming items available, like ThunderShirts (Buy from Chewy, prices vary), snugly fitting apparel that applies gentle, constant pressure to your dog’s body. This can have a calming effect on your dog, the same way swaddling can calm a human baby.
- Make sure you know where your dog hides in fearful moments, so you can find them easily when your family is evacuating.
- If your dog has extreme anxiety during storms, find a certified trainer who can work to desensitize your dog to the noises and flashes and teach them coping mechanisms.
- Engage your dog in any activity that captures his attention, says Sollars. This can distract him from all the loud noises that come with severe weather. Other options for drowning out the noise are running fans or playing calming music. Sollars notes there is a YouTube channel called Relax My Dog that’s entirely dedicated to this.
- Make sure your dog is indoors. Never leave a pet outside during a severe storm. If you’re under cover, she should be, too. Also, keep your doors and windows shut when you leave your dog alone.
- Keep a light on so your pet doesn’t notice the lightning.
- Create a safe space for your dog to go to in loud, frightening moments — it can be inside a crate, under the bed, in the basement, or in one of their favorite hiding spots.
- After the storm, check your yard for downed power lines, gaps in fences, and other hazards. Keep your dog on a leash outside until you know you’ve cleared away all debris and the area is safe.
Become an animal activist to protect your pets.
Another important thing you can do in advance of natural disasters is to campaign for improved evacuation facilities and pet search capabilities. Farmer asserts that government bodies at all levels need to include pets in disaster planning more comprehensively.
“When owners can’t bring their pets with them during evacuation, they sometimes refuse to evacuate,” increasing the danger for both themselves and their pets, she says. “This will happen even if government organizations tell people to do otherwise.” Acknowledging refusal to evacuate as a common reality and making sure information is provided to people about pet-friendly shelter locations would help solve this problem. “It would also be helpful for municipalities with animal control to have pet registries that could help families with reunification,” she adds.
Farmer also points out that animal cruelty is exacerbated during disasters. “We see a lot
of surrenders to shelters after a disaster, which can lead to free or cheap adoptions, but these canines are often used for things like dog fighting,” she laments. “In North Carolina during a hurricane,” she shares, “a woman who rescued 27 pets was arrested for practicing veterinary medicine on them without a license.”
It pays to look into various aspects of your government and criminal justice system and find out what you can do to improve evacuation access and other protections for dogs during emergencies.
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A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Inside Your Dog’s Mind.
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