Disaster Prep: How to Evacuate Safely With Your Pets

Prepare your pets for natural disasters like tornadoes, earthquakes, fires and hurricanes.
Thinkstock

In the past year, we've seen a bit of every kind of bad weather from Mother Nature including hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes and fires. With all this intense weather, Mother Nature seems to be reminding us just how important it is to have an evacuation plan so you and your pet can weather a natural disaster safely, come hail or high water.

Before Disaster Strikes

Some of the more important disaster planning steps can be completed long before there are any signs of trouble. Simple things like keeping your pet current on vaccinations can be hugely beneficial should you need to board him unexpectedly.

According to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture's principal veterinarian, Dr. Shari Silverman, an evacuation bag should be part of your family's disaster plan. In this bag, you should have all the items you may need during a three- to seven-day evacuation. "Ideally, you have a grab-and-go bag ready at all times. If not, you should start packing one as soon as you think a disaster situation may be imminent," Silverman says.

In addition, Silverman advises pet owners to make sure that a trustworthy friend or neighbor has a key to their house in case of an emergency. "Who's going to take care of your animals if you can't? You need to make sure someone nearby can get to your pets if you can't for some reason, be it a hurricane or a car accident," Silverman explains.

No predisaster checklist could be complete without current ID tags, microchips, and pet carriers for each of your pets. All these items will help make an emergency evacuation easier and safer for both you and your pet.

Though you may be able to carry you cat around like a baby on a normal day, he may behave erratically during a disaster or evacuation, even running away from you. "Don't expect your pet to behave normally in these situations," Dr. Silverman warns. "That's why pet crates and microchips are so important."

Evacuating With Your Pets

Miami veterinarian Dr. Patty Khuly, a frequent contributor to USA Today and other publications, agrees. A veteran of many hurricane evacuations, Khuly advises that the best way to make sure your pets stay safe during a disaster is to take them along with you. “In every case, pet owners should be prepared to evacuate with their pets! That should be our default setting,” she says.

In other words, don't expect emergency responders to do the work for you. Make sure you've made all the proper arrangements to evacuate your pet yourself.

One of your first orders of business is simply locating your pet ahead of time. According to Khuly, "One of the most dangerous things that can happen to any pet during these situations is getting loose." If you suspect that an evacuation may be imminent, the National Hurricane Center recommends that you "bring pets indoors well in advance," making sure to "reassure them and keep them calm." The last place you want to be during a disaster is wandering around the neighborhood calling your pet's name.

Under ideal circumstances, your dog, cat, hedgehog, etc. will be welcome at whatever hurricane party you attend. However, that's not always the case. Kuhly urges evacuees to make a list of pet-friendly hotels and boarding kennels in the direction they need to travel beforehand. Keep in mind that American Red Cross disaster shelters cannot accept pets, so it’s best to make the important inquiries — with friends, family, or pet-friendly hotels — well in advance.

If you plan to evacuate using public transportation, e.g., trains or buses, inquire ahead of time whether those carriers allow pets. If so, they will likely require pet crates, as well as proof of vaccination.

Another important step in this process is rounding up all the items that your pet may need in the event that your brief evacuation lasts longer than you hope. These are the items that should be in your grab-and-go bag.

Evacuation Checklist:

  1. Food and water. Make sure you have a large supply of food and water for you pet, preferably a whole month’s worth.
  2. Two forms of ID for your pet. Tags with current information, displayed on either a halter or collar, along with a microchip are highly recommended. It is also recommended that there is contact information on file at your microchip company for a friend who lives outside the affected area, so if your pet is found, contact can be made quickly even if your cell is out of power or other local disruptions exist.
  3. Pet carrier. Each pet needs his own carrier to keep him safe and secure, especially when traveling in closed quarters with other pets.
  4. Medication. Don’t forget your pet’s prescription meds. Medications can sometime be critical to your pet's health and can be hard to replace. Kuhly recommends a two-week supply.
  5. Vaccination records. In case you need to board your pet or use public transportation during the course of your evacuation, these may come in handy. It would be ideal to scan a basic health certificate and keep it online for easy access.
  6. Pet care basics. This includes the everyday items you’re likely to overlook, like food and water dishes, leashes, litterboxes, chew toys, etc.

If You Have No Choice But to Leave Them Behind

If you absolutely can’t take your pets with you, a safe, secure animal shelter is your second best option. “If you are going to leave them at a kennel, make sure it has at least Category 3 storm certification,” Khuly tells Vetstreet. Specialized storm shelters are available for pets and livestock in some areas, but keep in mind that many require reservations.

In the event that you do have to leave your pet behind — which Khuly stresses is an absolute last resort — there are a number of common sense precautions you can take should your pet have to endure any extreme condition. Khuly recommends that pets be contained in a small space away from windows, rather than be given the run of your house. If floodwaters are a possibility, be sure to unplug appliances and choose an area on a higher floor if possible.

When it comes to nutrition, experts recommend leaving a few days' food and at least two weeks' water. Though your pet can survive quite a long time without food, the same is not true of water.

Returning Home After a Disaster

Even after the all clear has been given, there are still a number of safety precautions that responsible pet owners can take to ensure their pets' safety. Khuly recommends keeping your pets indoors while things get back to normal.

Smells and landmarks may be significantly altered by a disaster, disorienting your pet. It's important to check for potentially hazardous damage, contaminated water, or debris before allowing your pet free reign. Don't forget to check your fences for damage before allowing your dog in the yard.

Read more of Vetstreet's coverage on natural disasters and your pet.

Join the Conversation

Like this article? Have a point of view to share? Let us know!