By Dr. Shana Nicholson, faculty member, Emergency and Disaster Management at American Military University
Many people consider their pets members of their immediate family. However, when it comes to disaster planning, very few families take the time to consider what will happen to pets if residents need to leave their home during a disaster. Therefore, it is imperative that the fire service and other local agencies educate the public about contingency planning for animals. Here are some thoughts about what information needs to be shared with citizens regarding their pets:
- Make sure your community members know local and state laws of shelters.
- Does your local area permit people to bring animals on a leash or should animals be crated?
- If shelters do not allow for pets at all, what area hotels allow animals?
- Encourage the public to have realistic and reasonable conversations with friends and relatives in surrounding areas. In the event of an emergency in your area, citizens should have contacts in neighboring areas who can take their animals. Whatever plans a family establishes, all household members should know the plan in advance. Citizens should keep such contact numbers in their Emergency Contact List along with the veterinarian and emergency veterinarian clinics in the area.
- Pets have essential needs too so citizens should pack an emergency kit for their pets. Emergency kits should include copies of their shot records, a current photo, microchip numbers, and a medical first aid kit all stored in a waterproof container. Also include extra leashes, harnesses, water bowls, litter pans, toys and bedding. These emergency kits should be able to travel with the pet in case they’re being handed off to a volunteer or a shelter. Ensure pets’ tags have up-to-date information, in case the pet gets spooked and escapes in transition.
- Owners should consider any and all special needs of their animal that would not otherwise be known to someone else. Does a bird need to be in an overly warm area or be frequently watered? Can a snake survive cold temperatures? Does an iguana need extra heat lamps? These are all issues that responsible pet owners must preplan for in case of a disaster.
- Encourage citizens to mark their home with decal systems to alert first responders that pets are in the home. There are several decal systems available. The ASPCA recommends using a rescue sticker alert to let people know that pets are inside your home. It is important that these decals are clearly placed in the front of the house on a window with the most recent count and description of the animals. If residents evacuate animals during an emergency, they need to clearly write across the decal “EVACUATED” to ensure rescue workers do not waste time trying to secure pets.
- Remind citizens that their pets’ safety and well-being is not the number one priority of rescue workers, it is the safety of the people. However, first responders often go above and beyond to ensure pets are accounted for. Some advanced planning on the part of pet owners can greatly increase the likelihood that all two- and four-legged creatures can make it safely through a disaster.
Educating the public about how to keep their pets safe during a disaster can save everyone a lot of additional distress during an emergency. When disaster strikes, be sure your agency has adequate materials and information available to inform the public about what to do with pets and animals.
About the Author: Dr. Shana Nicholson has more than 20 years of emergency medical and fire science service experience. Her professional background also includes government, social services, and nonprofit administration. She is currently a faculty member in emergency and disaster management at American Military University. She received a bachelor’s in criminal justice from Fairmont State University, a master’s of science in Human Services with a specialization in criminal justice from Capella University and a PhD in human services with a counseling specialization also from Capella University.