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  By: AJ Mistretts

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Evacuating with your Pet

Evacuating with your pet

After days of watching satellite and radar images of a strong hurricane whipping over the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico, the evacuation recommendation didn’t come as a surprise. But to many people in metropolitan New Orleans, the thought of leaving their homes was sobering nonetheless.

Thoughts of ‘where will I go?’ and ‘what should I bring?’ run through people’s minds when they’re forced to evacuate. For pet owners, there’s another crucial

question: ‘what do I do with them?’

Last year’s hurricane season was one of the most active on record. The state of Florida received more than its share, with many citizens forced to evacuate their homes more than once to escape approaching storms. By mid-September, a looming Hurricane Ivan threatened south Louisiana and hundreds of thousands prepared to evacuate, many with pets.

Local veterinary clinics and kennels were inundated with calls from people asking if they could board their animals. The response was the same: staff are evacuating, no one will be here to take care of the pets. Animal care professionals advised clients to take their pets with them, and many offered light sedatives for use during the evacuation. By mid-morning on the first major evacuation day, veterinarians were sold out of sedatives and pet stores were stripped of dog and cat food and carriers.

For many who left the New Orleans area that day, the trip was a long one. Drives that should have taken only two hours took more than 10 in some situations. At rest stops, fast food joints and gas stations along roadways leaving the city, a veritable Noah’s Ark of animals on the getaway formed.

In whatever car one peered into stopped in barely moving traffic, there was a cat sticking its paw through an opening in a carrier, a dog with its nose pressed against a window or even a bird perched in its cage amid suitcases and family photos.

But where were they going? For many who evacuated, finding a place for their pets was one of the hardest parts of the process. From Jackson to Houston and as far as Memphis, hotel rooms were filling up, and pet-friendly accommodations were the first to go. Many realized they simply weren’t prepared for such a trip when it came to their pets.

For pet owners who don’t live along the hurricane susceptible coasts of the South or on the West Coast where earthquakes, forest fires and mudslides wreak havoc regularly, a forced evacuation may seem unlikely. But animal advocacy groups say the reality is disaster can strike anywhere and anytime. From chemical spills to house fires to floods, every person is potentially at risk, and so are their pets. They say preparation ahead of time is key to ensuring your pet survives the experience.

Emergency personnel and groups like the SPCA urge pet owners to always take their pets with them in the event of a disaster. If domestic animals are left behind to fend for themselves, they say, there’s a good chance they may not survive the experience.

They also advise owners to leave as soon as possible and not wait for a forced evacuation order. If an individual or family wait to be evacuated by emergency officials, it’s possible they will not be allowed to take their animals with them.

Amber Bethel, communications director with the Louisiana SPCA, says last year’s active hurricane season opened the eyes of many pet owners. “I think many people waited until the last minute to decide what their plan of action was,” she says. “I hope it taught more people to plan ahead, just in case.”

Bethel says she can’t stress enough how important tags and other forms of identification are in an emergency situation. “Sometimes even the best trained pets can get scared and run off in unfamiliar territory,” she says.
Bethel also recommends purchasing a pet carrier ahead of time. She says it’s a safe way for pets to travel in an evacuation and keeps them out of the owner’s way on what’s bound to be a stressful drive in traffic. But she warns, don’t wait until the last minute to buy one. Also make sure you have plenty of food, water, any medications as well as vaccination records on your pet packed in one central area, she says.

If you need to book a hotel room when you evacuate, you should check ahead to make sure the company accepts pets. “Some large chain establishments, such as Motel 6, Red Roof Inn and La Quinta are always pet friendly. Others may accept pets in an emergency,” Bethel says.

The Humane Society recommends that pet owners work out an arrangement with a neighbor to take animals to safety in the event a disaster occurs while the owner is not home. The organization says to be sure that the person is comfortable with your pets, knows where your animals are likely to be, where disaster supplies are kept, and has a key to the home.

Services can help in an emergency

Some pet services come in handy in emergency situations. Los Angeles-based 1-800-Help4Pets works like 911 for your animal. The 24/7, nationwide service allows those who find a pet to immediately locate its owner and learn as much information about the animal as necessary to make sure it’s taken care of properly.
A registered pet carries a very distinctive tag on their collar that works like a regular ID tag, but better. The tag includes an identification number and the company’s telephone number. As soon as the ID number is entered into the company’s database, the pet’s entire record, complete with as much information as the owner provided in advance, appears on a computer screen.

Owners can even give 1-800-Help4Pets permission to authorize veterinary treatment in the case of a medical emergency.

1-800-Help4Pets owner Liz Blackman says people should consider that they might not be home when a disaster like a flood or fire occurs. In such cases, emergency workers could evacuate a pet or it could escape on its own. With a system like 1-800-Help4Pets, the pet owner doesn’t have to be home near their telephone to wait for a call about their pet, which in some cases might be impossible. The company can reunite owner and animal wherever they are using various forms of contact provided. And if an owner is unreachable, 1-800-Help4Pets can even arrange for the pet to be boarded if the owner authorizes that in advance.

1-800-Help4Pets also works with the country’s two largest microchip companies to include their information on the injected chips as a backup to an ID tag. “There is no reason not to have every pet microchipped,” Blackman says. “It’s kind of like the lottery. Although your chances of winning are slim, if you buy a ticket your chances are 100 percent better than if you didn’t.”
The service is active throughout the United States and Canada and has more than 100,000 member pets. Since it launched in 1995, 1-800-Help4Pets has had a 100 percent success record in uniting animals with their owners.

The company also offers its customers access to services such as lists of pet-friendly accommodations in their area, emergency referral services and advice on traveling with their pet.

Pets, both indoor and outdoor, should wear identification at all times, Blackman says, adding that she’s heard from many pet owners who say their animal never leaves the house and doesn’t need an ID tag. But what happens if the house catches fire? “The message that I would love to get across to people is that you can’t pick and choose when your pet is going to get involved in an emergency, even in the house. You never know when they might have a need for ID that you can’t anticipate.”

Also, Blackman says, disaster preparedness should include a set plan. If there is more than one person in a household with pets there should be a plan to call each other to verify that someone has retrieved the animal in the event of a disaster. And in case whatever is affecting your community is also affecting the telephone lines, have a backup plan to call a particular relative in another state so that you can communicate indirectly.
“In the throes of an emergency, none of us is thinking clearly,” Blackman says. “That’s why we need to think about these things ahead of time.”

Evacuation Kit

It’s important to keep an evacuation/disaster kit on hand. In your kit you should include:

• Medications and medical records stored in a waterproof container and a first aid kit. A pet first aid book is also good to include.
• Sturdy leashes, harnesses, and carriers to transport pets safely and to ensure that your pets can’t escape. Carriers should be large enough for the animal to stand comfortably, turn around, and lie down. Your pet may have to stay in the carrier for hours at a time while you have taken shelter away from home. Be sure to have a secure cage with no loose objects inside it to accommodate smaller pets. These may require blankets or towels for bedding and warmth, and other special items.
• Current photos and descriptions of your pets to help others identify them in case you and your pets become separated and to prove that they are yours.
• Food and water for at least three days for each pet, bowls, cat litter and litter box, and a manual can opener.
• Information on feeding schedules, medical conditions, behavior problems, and the name and number of your veterinarian in case you have to board your pets or place them in foster care.
• Pet beds and toys, if you can easily take them, to reduce stress.
Source: The Humane Society of the United States

Returning home after the storm

Planning and preparation will help you weather the disaster, but your home may be a very different place afterward, whether you have taken shelter at home or elsewhere.
• Don’t allow your pets to roam loose. Familiar landmarks and smells might be gone, and your pet will probably be disoriented. Pets can easily get lost in such situations.
• For a few days, keep dogs on leashes and keep cats in carriers inside the house. If your house is damaged, they could escape and become lost.
• Be patient with your pets after a disaster. Try to get them back into their normal routines as soon as possible, and be ready for behavioral problems that may result from the stress of the situation. If behavioral problems persist, or if your pet seems to be having any health problems, talk to your veterinarian.

Source: The Humane Society of the United States

Photographs by Cami Johnson,