Emergency Planning Is For Pets Too

Failure to include pets in emergency planning puts human lives at risk.

A grey cat looks out of a pet carrier
Photo: eAlisa/Shutterstock.com

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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“There is no other factor contributing as much to human evacuation failure in disasters that is under the control of emergency management when a threat is imminent as pet ownership.” So say Sebastian Heath (FEMA) and Robert Linnabary (University of Tennessee) in a review of the ways in which pets should be included in emergency planning. 

Emergency management has five stages: planning, preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery. It is important to include pets at all stages so that people with pets are more likely to evacuate if necessary. The human-animal bond can also encourage people to prepare for disasters, since they may be motivated to plan for their pet even if not for themselves.

Strong emergency planning also entails having a good start point, which is not currently the case for animals in the US. Shelters and rescues struggle to cope with the existing number of strays and unwanted pets, with millions of cats and dogs euthanized annually

One consequence is there is no spare capacity that could be utilized in an emergency. Another is that in a disaster, organizations would have to assume stray pets are unwanted, rather than separated from their people, because this is already the case during normal times.
One thing everyone can do to help mitigate disasters is simply not to have more animals than you can care for. The authors suggest this is backed up by local bylaws prohibiting too many pets. If people are struggling to provide proper care for their animals, they will struggle even more during an emergency. 

Once people have three or more pets, the proportion who will evacuate falls substantially (unless they also have children). Another reason is that during an evacuation, you might have to care for the animals on your own at the shelter.

Many emergency shelters will not take pets. Heath and Lannabary say, “Although most evacuees are able to find a place to stay on their own, prior identification of a pet-friendly shelter where owners can find temporary shelter for themselves and housing for their pets provides further encouragement to pet owners to evacuate with their pets.” 

They suggest emergency planners provide free leashes and cardboard pet carriers to those who have to evacuate, and that shelters have a designated area for working dogs (like search and rescue dogs) to rest between shifts. In the US, the National Fire Protection Association’s Standard for Mass Evacuation and Sheltering, due to be implemented in 2017, includes a section on service animals and pets.

Communication following emergencies should include positive stories of people who have successfully evacuated with their pets, as this will encourage others to follow suit. Failing to evacuate pets can lead to dangerous attempts at rescue. In one chemical spill, about 20% of evacuees later tried to return to rescue pets they had left behind. 

News stories about disasters typically focus on the response, rather than the whole picture. Heath and Linnabary say, 
“Stories of the plight of animals in disasters are common in the media and often described as being solely the result of the disaster. However, disasters rarely create new situations, in most cases, disasters simply expose underlying systemic vulnerabilities.”

Following a natural disaster, there is often an outpouring of support. Heath and Linnabary say it is important to have plans to ensure support is appropriate, for example that monies go to organizations that will account for how it is spent, and that items donated are ones that will be useful. 

Requests should come via official channels and they also point out that, in the absence of an appropriate official response, other organizations will step in, sometimes in ways that suit their own ends rather than the local community.
Many people are willing to help animals in a disaster. Emergency planning should include a volunteer coordinator who can assess the suitability of volunteers and match them to tasks, as well as training for relevant people within the community (such as animal shelter and veterinary staff). FEMA has credentialed courses for Animal Emergency Responders specializing in e.g. companion animals, equines, or livestock, and other useful courses on topics such as Animals in Disasters. 

If you live in an area prone to natural hazards such as wildfires or earthquakes, you can make plans for such events that include your pets, such as having an emergency preparedness kit for your animals. Here are some useful suggestions from The Red Cross, the Canadian Disaster Animal Response Team, and the Humane Society of the United States.
One of the lessons of this paper is that solving existing vulnerabilities for companion animals is important for resilience in an emergency. 

The full paper is essential reading for anyone interested in emergency planning (open access, link below). 

Have you thought about how you would look after your pets in an emergency?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Heath, S., & Linnabary, R. (2015). Challenges of Managing Animals in Disasters in the U.S. Animals, 5 (2), 173-192 DOI: 10.3390/ani5020173

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