Preparation Makes a Difference to Pets in an Emergency

After the Great Earthquake in Japan, preparation was key to evacuating with pets - including training and socialization.

A Shiba Inu in Japan
Photo: Grisha Bruev/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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When the magnitude 9 earthquake struck Japan in 2011, causing a tsunami and subsequent accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant, over 15,000 people were killed. Many people had to evacuate at short notice. Did emergency planning make a difference to their pets?

In 2012, pet owners from two of the most badly affected areas, Iwate and Fukushima Prefectures, were asked about whether or not they took their pet and the types of planning they had done beforehand. The survey, by Sakiko Yamazaki (Humane Society International), has important implications for disaster preparedness. 

In both Iwate and Fukushima, the most common thing people had done to prepare for an emergency was to have extra supplies of pet food. The percentage of people who did this was about the same amongst those who did and did not evacuate with their pet.

Training and socialization of pets made a difference. Yamazaki says, “a higher percentage of those who evacuated with their pets prepared by socialization/obedience training pets, compared with those who could not, suggesting that this could be an effective way to prepare regardless of the type of disaster.”

In Iwate, 46% of people who evacuated with pets had socialized and trained them, compared to 26% of those who had to leave their pets behind. In Fukushima, the figures are 30% and 8%, respectively.

46% of the participants had to leave all their pets behind when they evacuated. Only 41% were able to take all of their pets with them. The situation in Fukushima was slightly different than Iwate, since people were not encouraged to take pets with them, and thought they would only be evacuated for a short time. 

In Fukushima, other factors that made a difference were having extra (non-food) supplies for the pet, having copies of the pet’s photo and vet record, and knowing where they could board their pet temporarily.

The most common help needed after the quake was provision of pet food. Not surprisingly, people who had left their pet behind were more likely to need help in locating their pet. In Iwate, vet care was also needed; and in Fukushima, other pet supplies were needed. Help still needed at the time of the survey varied, reflecting the fact that those in Fukushima were still in temporary accommodation.

These results show that an everyday thing – the training and socialization of your pet – turned out to be essential in an emergency. This means disaster preparedness for pets is not just about emergency supplies, but also about giving your pet the skills to cope with normal, everyday living. 

289 people completed the survey (140 from Iwate Prefecture and 149 in Fukushima). It is not a random sample, and people in Iwate were recruited via an organization that gave help to pet-owners (and hence may have been more likely to seek help). The questionnaire also relies on people’s memories after the event. Nonetheless the results are useful since participants were all people who evacuated at the time of the disaster from areas that were devastated.

Other studies have highlighted the importance of including pets in emergency planning (Heath and Linnabary, 2015), and of utilizing pets to help vulnerable people prepare for disasters (Thompson et al 2014). People will often risk their lives to save pets in an emergency. Preparing in advance helps ensure your pet can go with you if you ever have to evacuate. This study is a concrete example of the difference it can make.

What is the emergency preparedness plan for your household?

The full paper is available to read (open access) here

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.E., & Linnabary, R.D. (2015). Challenges of managing animals in disasters in the US Animals, 5 (2), 173-192 : 10.3390/ani5020173#sthash.7n7gGyyg.dpuf  
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 : 10.3390/ani4020214  
Yamazaki, S. (2015) A survey of companion-animal owners affected by the East Japan Great Earthquake in Iwate and Fukushima Prefectures, Japan. Anthrozoos, 28 (2)

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