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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Animal & Veterinary

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PROTECTING PETS IN A DISASTER

FDA Veterinarian Newsletter January/February 2000 Volume XV, No I

By Karen A. Kandra and Mary Cacia Masser, D.V.M.

The following article provides information on protecting pets in a disaster. Veterinarians may wish to duplicate this article and provide copies to their interested clients. As always, material which appears in the FDA Veterinarian is free of copyright and may be reproduced without permission.

When we think of "disasters" we usually envision large-scale emergencies, such as earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, etc. However, much more common are personal disasters, which could be just as devastating to individual families as a huge cataclysmic event. House fires, extended power outages, car accidents, or sudden hospitalization are examples of events that may call for alternative care of our pets.

Preparation

It is best to prepare an emergency response plan prior to any crisis to avoid suffering to our four-legged friends. The American Red Cross provides excellent materials that will also help you and your family to develop an emergency plan. You should decide ahead of time who will be responsible for pet care if any emergency strikes. Choose the best room in the house to leave your pet if necessary. Make arrangements with neighbors. Be sure they have keys to your home along with specific information as to what pets are there, where they are located, and instructions for any medication needed. It also helps if your pets are familiar with your neighbors ahead of time, so they will not be dealing with strangers, and adding to the stress. Train your pet to a crate. In a crisis, he may need to be transported, and the ordeal will be less stressful if the crate is a comfortable and familiar place. Always keep pet's vaccinations current.

It is a good idea to prepare a disaster kit for your pet which should include: collars, tags, and leashes, a muzzle or gauze bandage, two-week supply of dry food, water, bowls, paper towels, and plastic bags for waste clean-up, and copies of pet's medical and vaccination records. Your pet's crate should be labeled with the pet's name, your name, and where you may be reached, or an out-of-area phone contact, if phone lines are down, and any specific medical instructions for the animal. Prepare a telephone tree, with numbers of family, friends, veterinarian, local animal control, or shelter, local hotels which accept pets, etc.

IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO LEAVE PERTINENT INFORMATION ABOUT THE PET INCLUDING:

  • Your name and whereabouts including phone number (cell phones especially),
  • Pet's name, age, vaccination status,
  • Name and phone number of family veterinarian,
  • Pet insurance papers (if applicable),
  • Any health issues or information about recent diagnoses, i.e., diabetic, epileptic, spayed/neutered, special diet, medications, heart disease, cancer, etc.,
  • Behavior characteristics, i.e., fearful, aggressive w/children, other animals.

In addition, please leave some type of signed authorization sheet, outlining your wishes (include financial parameters and humane and compassion guidelines) for your pet's care. Examples are:

  1. I authorize veterinary health care providers to care for my pet in the following manner -- either authorize up to a certain reasonable figure: $300 - $500, or "whatever care is necessary."
  2. I authorize that if determined to be suffering without reasonable chance for survival, that my pet may be euthanized following examination and determination made by a veterinarian. (or list the name and phone number of a person who may be authorized to make this decision under the advisement of a veterinarian in your absence)
  3. Please provide only the basics for life-threatening conditions only.

Please sign and date these instruction sheets. Often pet owners can leave their wishes in written form with their veterinarian to be included as part of the permanent patient record. Family veterinarians can be a valuable reference to emergency doctors trying to make decisions for pets and people they do not know. Many times they will consult with the family veterinarian in serious treatment matters or if euthanasia is being considered.

If there are financial considerations, please note them. Veterinarians want to comply with owners' wishes whenever possible. Veterinarians' goals are to save and care for family pets, not deplete your bank account! Unfortunately, unless you have pet insurance, expert care has a price. If you have a pet insurance policy be sure to leave it with the pet. Without knowing your personal choices for care of your sick or injured pet, emergency personnel are stuck between providing basic care and extended care for a pet, whose condition may only worsen as time passes, possibly lowering survival rates. Often the good neighbors who are left to care for your pets cannot or will not be financially responsible for extensive veterinary care. Most emergency veterinary practices do not offer billing services.

During the Disaster

Animals can sense danger, and may panic and try to hide when fearful. To avoid injury and escape, crate the pet immediately, if a crisis is imminent. In certain emergencies it may be necessary to temporarily evacuate the area. This may include evacuation of animals. For pets, veterinary hospitals, boarding kennels or fairgrounds may be utilized as holding facilities, where it is not possible for animals to accompany their owners to emergency shelters.

Under no circumstances should you ever leave your pet tied up or loose to fend for themselves. It is best to leave them in a room without windows, such as a bathroom, to prevent them from escaping or being injured from broken glass, in certain situations. If they will be left for several days, leave thick newspapers to absorb waste, and warm bedding. Remember, there may be extended power outages. Unplug all electrical appliances, and cover all electrical outlets with plastic or duct tape to avoid electrocution. If you have two of the same type of animals who get along well, leave them together for company. Keep exotic pets in separate rooms, since many reptiles can be dangerous to disaster personnel who do not know how to handle them. Post signs on door indicating what is in the room.

Be sure to provide a large supply of water in a heavy bowl which will not tip over, or leave water in tubs, or sinks, where the animal has access to it. Remove all flammable and poisonous chemicals from the room, and turn off all electricity.

After the Disaster

The behavior of pets often changes following a disaster. Normally quiet cats and dogs may become aggressive or defensive. Recovery from the disaster may take several days, weeks, or months. During the period of adjustment here are some recommendations:

  1. Check your pet for injury and/or exposure to chemicals. Consult your veterinarian when in doubt.
  2. Use care when releasing your pet from their crate. Familiar scents and sights may be gone. Downed power lines, or debris may pose serious threats to animals. Release only into an enclosed room or yard to prevent escape.
  3. If your pet was without food and water for an extended time, allow him to eat/drink small amounts every few hours. In addition, the pet should be examined by a veterinarian ASAP in order to perform an inexpensive and quick (3 minute) blood test to accurately check for dehydration. This is particularly important for young pets under 6 months, and very important for geriatric pets. Even the slightest amount of dehydration or water deprivation may be fatal for an aged pet with any degree of kidney dysfunction.
  4. Allow your pet to have plenty of sleep and provide familiar toys while it becomes re-acclimated to its surroundings.

Hopefully, you will never face a major disaster, but it pays to remember your pets as part of your household disaster planning. If you must evacuate your home, it is best to take your pets with you. However, if you must leave them behind, advance plans for their care will ensure their health and safety. These suggestions are important, not only in times of disaster, but also during a brief family vacation.