It starts with the reverse 911 call, the pounding on the front door, the blaring PA speaker on the police car, or the sudden quiet of the power going out. It is the raging fire sweeping in, the rising waters of the overflowing river, or the rumbling sound of mud and debris coming down the side of a burned-out hillside. It could even be the sudden jolt and rolling movement of the Earth when the 7.5+ quake finally hits. These events will never happen when you expect them. They will happen when you’re at work, on vacation, sound asleep, or just away for the day, but someday something will happen.
With all the recent events—hurricanes, floods, fires, and earthquakes— do you have a plan in place for your pets that are homebound, caged or fenced-in? What would happen to them if you need to evacuate, are unable to return to your home from work or school, or are away on a vacation or business trip? Do you have a “fire buddy” who has access to your home and knows your pets and how to get them out? Do you know where local pet-friendly hotels or evacuation centers are located? Do you have a way to communicate if cell towers go out or the Internet goes down? Is everything you need for your pets in one area, easy to grab and go? There always seems to be more questions than answers, but let’s see if we can at least get you thinking about some things that will give you and your family’s pets a better chance of staying together and surviving, whatever emergency may come your way.
For people who call Southern California home, earthquakes are always a possibility. Most other possible disasters can depend on where you live and work. Hopefully, most Californians are at least somewhat prepared for an earthquake, with basic supplies on hand. Unlike some other types of disasters, earthquakes will affect a large area all at once, and everyone should be able to sustain themselves and their pets for atleast 24 hours and probably 72 hours, just to be safe. Those that depend on transportation corridors to get to and from work will be trapped on one side or the other for quite some time, and those who live or work in areas with limited access, such as in the mountains, should have supplies to last 7 to 14 days, in case it takes that long to receive outside assistance. With earthquakes, you may truly be on your own, so your best bet is to make sure you can sustain you and your pets for several days without any assistance.
Fires, floods, blizzards, wind events and other disasters from Mother Nature are usually more conducive to evacuations, neighbor assistance, sheltering in place, and local assistance from official personnel. If you have placed all your evacuation or emergency supplies in one or two locations, then you’ll be ahead of the game should you need to leave quickly or shelter in place. After ensuring your safety and that of your loved ones and pets, you will be able to check on your neighbors and assess local damage. You should develop a game plan for going to a safer location, staying in place, assisting others, or finding a means of communication.
So, let’s talk about the pets. My expertise is with cats, but you can adapt the supplies to your specific pets—the principle is the same. What do we need, and what do we do with and for them should an emergency arise? I have lived in the San Bernardino Mountains with my wife and cats for almost 40 years. We’ve experienced numerous fires, some with the entire mountain under evacuation orders, some causing the entire mountain power grid to go down for more than 2 weeks, and some causing access up or down the mountain to be cut off. Wind storms have felled more than 200 utility poles at one time, and winter storms have cut off not only power but also access up and down the mountain, creating detours lasting for months and even years. We’ve been forced to evacuate several times and have been under evacuation orders several more times when we chose to shelter in place. Those decisions didn’t come easy, especially when we considered our cats’ well-being.
What did and does help is having everything ready and in one location for quick access. We created a cat evacuation corner, where we have carriers, collapsed cages, beds, food, water and cat-related supplies and medications. When we had more cats, we even had names on the cages so that our “fire buddy” could put the right cats in the right cages, sometimes loading two to a cage. A folder with a photo and name for each cat was on top of the pile to help. Now, with only a few cats, each has his own carrier, and life is much easier. We have a simple set-up with carriers, cages, litter, and a large plastic container with all the other supplies. For most situations, once you’re evacuated and in a safe area, you will have access to pet stores and supplies.
A “fire buddy” is someone you know and trust with your pets. They should be acquainted with your pets so there is familiarity on both sides, and they should know where all the evacuation supplies are so an exit can be quick and efficient. They also need to know if you have a pet who may need to be left behind or even let loose to fend for himself. We’ve all had animals who are fearful or have issues that others can’t deal with, and that decision shouldn’t be left to the person helping you. Let them know what you want them to do in that situation.
So what else can we do? A lot of house pets are crate-trained. What this means is that they’re familiar with and comfortable in a cage or carrier and will, most of the time, enter on their own and wait for you to close the door. If your pet runs away at the sight of a carrier or cage, now is the time to get them adjusted and comfortable with cages and carriers. Your pets are attuned to your emotional state and will pick up on your stress and react accordingly. Pets need to feel safe and secure, and that is what the carrier or cage provides. Our cats love the carriers and cages, and when we leave them out and open, there will always be one or two cats inside sleeping or playing. If you need to change your pet’s attitude about the crate or carrier, try this: bring it out, put food in it, let them sleep in it, close the door with them in it, and then move it to a different room and reward them for being good. Get them used to being inside it, so they understand that it’s not always a vehicle for heading to the animal hospital—sometimes, it leads to good things, like food, play, and nap time. Carriers and cages are your best insurance that your pet will stay safe during the evacuation process.
Evacuation centers are aware that one of the main reasons people do not check in during a crisis is that they have pets. There will always be an area for large animal evacuations, usually a fairground or fenced-in open area with portable kennels and corrals. Most evacuation centers now also provide an area for people with house pets. This doesn’t mean they are allowed to run free or be on a leash in the center. Evacuation centers are full of stressed and anxious humans, and pets are very sensitive to that and may act out, so confinement and safety are paramount for both your pet and the people around you. You may also find out just how calming and comforting your pet can be to you and others in these situations.
Hopefully, you and your pets will never have to experience an evacuation or be involved in a situation where you are locked out of your area while your pets are left behind. But if you do, be assured that first responders are pet owners, too. They will be looking for caged or leashed animals outside of homes, and they have contingencies for rescue and placement of those animals they can see or hear. If all your pets are indoors, you can make this known by placing a sticker on or near the front door indicating the types and number of animals inside and any critical medical information.
Animal Control, The Humane Society, the Department of Fish and Game, and FEMA-trained animal rescue groups are always a part of the emergency management system during disasters. These organizations have been responsible for reuniting countless owners with their animals and pets, both large and small. Please do what you can to help them help you, by at least being prepared for an emergency, with a plan of action should you be away from home.
Spend a little time now getting prepared for an emergency, and you’ll save time, worry, and maybe even your pets if one ever occurs. For more information and access to numerous articles, lists, and videos with advice on preparing for disasters of all types, check out the FEMA website at www.Fema.gov.