Should Pets be Included in Emergency Planning?

And can they help vulnerable people be more resilient?

An elderly woman holding her black and white cat
Photo: Nika Art / Shutterstock
By Zazie Todd PhD

A new paper by Thompson et al (2014) in Australia considers how pets can be incorporated into planning for emergencies such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and forest fires. It can quite literally be a matter of life and death. For example, they say, “over 8% of flood-related fatalities in Australia from 1788 to September 1996 resulted from people’s attempts to save ‘stock, property or pets’ – even when the animal or pet was not their own.” 

People sometimes risk their lives in an emergency because they do not want to leave their pets behind. If someone refuses to evacuate because they cannot bring their dog or cat, their life may be at risk, as well as the lives of emergency responders. It’s not just pets – sometimes people are motivated to risk their own lives to try and protect farm animals or wildlife.

The question posed by the paper is, given we know animals are a risk factor in an emergency, is it possible instead for animals to play a protective role? For example, if someone is reluctant to plan for emergencies, would they do so for the pets, if not for themselves? We already know that pets can help vulnerable people. For example, in recent research by Lem et al (2013), homeless individuals talked about how they were motivated to find housing instead of living on the street because it would be better for their dog or cat.

The authors say, “given that more than half the population own pets, there is arguably more risk in not helping people to safely accommodate animals in their emergency plans.” (emphasis: original).

The paper considers the role of pets in the lives of different groups of vulnerable people: Indigenous Australians, seniors, children and youth, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, people with disabilities, homeless people and people with mental health problems.

The full text includes a detailed description of the role of pets in the lives of these varied groups of people. Pets may play a different role for each group, and even within a group there will be differences, as well as individual differences in vulnerabilities and resilience. Nonetheless, taking these into consideration can improve emergency planning.

An emergency does not break the human-animal bond; it may even make it stronger. For most people, their pets are part of the family. However, many emergency shelters will not take pets. In addition, people who do not have pets themselves may not want animals in a shelter and may not understand why others want them there. 

The authors say, “The most renowned example of a forced separation was witnessed by people around the world as footage of the Hurricane Katrina evacuations recorded a dog named Snowball being torn from the arms of a distraught young boy who was not allowed to bring his pet on a bus.”

Being separated from a pet causes grief because people are attached to their animals. Separation may cause other problems too. Those who rely on a service animal may be unable to get around or perform basic tasks that are needed for independence. Indigenous people who have lost their hunting dogs may struggle to hunt for food. Some vulnerable people will simply be incapacitated by grief. 

So what are the solutions? Animal-related networks, such as assistance dog groups, those who provide pet food and vet care to the homeless, and animal therapy groups, could help provide access to vulnerable people for emergency planners wishing to spread the message about disaster planning. These networks may also be able to help communicate about the need to plan, and what should be done; for example, via face-to-face communication rather than written materials.

Just as pets can help vulnerable people cope with the challenges of daily life, they may also help them recover after an emergency. And the authors say another issue is that emergency responders may have to cope with the sight of sick or dying animals, as well as the human cost of a disaster. They say, “Avoiding these disturbing experiences, and maximizing the value of pets and other animals in improving the recovery of vulnerable people after disasters is a compelling rationale for ensuring that all measures are taken to ensure that pets as well as people survive natural disasters.”

The full paper is valuable reading for anyone involved in emergency planning. For individuals, it’s a reminder to consider pets in thinking about natural disasters. For example, if you live in an area that might be affected by earthquake, do you have a few days’ supplies of food and water for your pets? Is your pet crate-trained in case you ever need to evacuate? And what should be done to help vulnerable people in your community, whether via a community organization or simply some neighbours that you keep an eye on?

Have you given much thought to how you could help your pets in a natural disaster?

Lem, M.,, Coe, J.B.,, Haley, D.B.,, Stone, E.,, & O'Grady, W. (2013). Effects of companion animal ownership among Canadian street-involved youth: A qualitative analysis Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 40 (4), 285-304  
Thompson, K., Every, D., Rainbird, S., Cornell, V., Smith, B., & Trigg, J. (2014). No Pet or Their Person Left Behind: Increasing the Disaster Resilience of Vulnerable Groups through Animal Attachment, Activities and Networks Animals, 4 (2), 214-240 DOI: 10.3390/ani4020214

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