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How to Prepare Yourself and Your Pets for Disaster

California is no stranger to disasters, and unfortunately, this trend is likely to continue. Devastating fires, floods, and the imminent threat of a major earthquake have become the new normal in and around the Bay Area. Disaster planners and community leaders have become much more aware of the necessity to consider animals of all species in emergency planning through the lessons learned with each event.

Municipal shelters, nonprofit shelters, animal control officers, rescue groups, and animal disaster volunteer organizations from the region have come together to respond to the needs of the animals impacted in these events. Human care and sheltering disaster planners and first responders are also more aware of the role that pets play in people’s compliance with evacuation orders and sheltering choices that affect health and safety. More and more, these groups are working together and building relationships that will ensure continual improvements in the response to future disasters for people and pets.

Historically, evacuation and sheltering plans referenced companion animals only with the inclusion of service animals, which as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, are specifically dogs (or miniature horses) individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Service animals enjoy specific legal protections that allow them to accompany their handlers in areas where the public are generally permitted. Emotional Support Animals and animals used as therapy animals are not considered service animals by the ADA, although they may be granted certain accommodations.

After Hurricane Katrina, however, it became clear that pet companion animals are a major influence in decision-making with regard to evacuation and sheltering. Many people refused to evacuate understanding that their pets would not be accepted at the shelters (with admission being limited to service animals). Rather than leave their pets behind, people chose to stay in the evacuation zone putting themselves at risk. Some did choose to evacuate early, only to return later to dangerous areas to attempt to rescue their pets, endangering themselves and first responders tasked with rescuing them.

Human health is also impacted mentally, physically, and socially when pets are affected by a disaster. Companion animals provide emotional and social support and provide physical and mental health benefits, especially for special needs populations. This human-animal bond is defined as a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors essential to the health and well-being of both. In fact, many people consider their pets to be family members. The human-animal bond is therefore particularly important to consider in the context of a disaster.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act was signed into law in October 2006, amending Section 403 of the Stafford Act. Section 403, as amended by the PETS Act, authorizes FEMA to provide rescue, care, shelter, and essential needs for individuals with household pets and service animals and to the household pets and animals themselves following a major disaster or emergency. Similar legislation was passed at the state level with the California Animal Emergency Response Act (2006). With this change, companion animals are now included in disaster planning at the local, state, and federal level. Planning for evacuation and rescue, care and sheltering, and reunification of companion animals is evolving to meet the needs of the community. There has been some movement toward the use of cohabitation sheltering in some situations in which family units, including companion animals, are sheltered together. Human and animal organizations and shelters in the same region are regularly working together to accommodate displaced animals in disasters and using social media and other networking to help reunite families.

In an ideal situation, companion animals would avoid the shelter altogether. Different smells, noise, change in routine and diet, potential exposure to other species, and confinement all contribute to a stressful and chaotic environment even under the best of circumstances. Being self-sufficient and prepared for an event starts with putting together supplies for a disaster kit, making a disaster plan, and being informed of and/or involved with your county’s plans.

Pet Disaster Kit

The following is a sample list (for dogs/cats) of what to include in your kit for each pet. This may vary depending on individual needs: a two-week supply of food and water for each pet (with instructions for feeding); can opener and/or spoon; spill-proof bowls; newspaper, training pads, bedding, towels; litter, litter pan, scoop; comfort items such as toys and treats; medications (with instructions); leash, collar, and/or harness for each pet; stakes, tie-outs, X-pen; cages, carriers, crates with labels for each pet; zip ties; first-aid kit; hygiene supplies (baby wipes, hand sanitizer, waste bags, etc.); cat or wildlife gloves, net; muzzles; cleaning supplies (trash bags, paper towels, dish soap, disinfectant, etc.).

Pet Records

Proof of ownership (photos and descriptions of all pets, license information, microchip number); proof of vaccines; medical history; emergency contacts (veterinarian, local contact, out-of-state contact, boarding facility, list of pet-friendly hotels, etc.); and authorization for treatment.

Pet Disaster Plan

• Include a list of pre-determined options for boarding, ideally outside affected area. This could include friends or family members as well as commercial facilities.

• Talk to friends, neighbors, dog-walkers, and pet-sitters who are familiar with your animals and have access to your home. They may be able to assist in evacuating pets if you are away when a disaster occurs.

• Post signs for first responders at all entrances that indicate number and species of animals in the household, favorite hiding spots, and where supplies are kept.

• Keep handling equipment (gloves, nets, etc.) where it can be found easily. Cats tend to hide when stressed and may be difficult to find or handle in an emergency.

• Practice with carriers and crates so pets can be safely confined quickly and easily and with as little stress as possible in an emergency. Consider crate training all dogs. Leave the carrier/crate open and accessible in the pet’s normal environment regularly and make it as appealing as possible to allow the pet to acclimate (particularly important for cats).

• Take your pet with you if you are evacuating. Do not leave animals behind, as you may not be permitted to return for an extended period.

• If you cannot take your animals with you, bring them indoors and do not tether or crate them should they need to escape for their own safety (excepting birds and small mammals, etc.). Leave food and water if able to do so.

• Be sure your pet has multiple forms of identification. Many tags are now equipped with QR codes that allow for essential information to be linked to the tag, and some even have limited GPS capability; however, it is easy for the collar or tag to slip off and become lost in a disaster. The single most important thing you can do for identification is to get your pets microchipped. Remember this is a two-step process: once the chip is implanted, it is crucial to register the chip with the manufacturer with your pet’s vital information.

• Talk to your veterinarian about how to prepare for an emergency and assemble a kit for your pets. They can provide information specific to your pet’s individual needs.

• There are many resources that provide guidance on disaster plans and emergency kits, including the American Veterinary Medical Association: Pets and Disasters, ( and Pets and Animals (

• Visit the websites for your local municipal and nonprofit animal shelters in your county. Local disaster plans will be available from the designated lead agency in an animal disaster, which varies depending on the county.

• Consider volunteering at your local shelter or for one of the many animal organizations that may respond in a disaster. Some counties or regions have DART or CARTs (Disaster Animal Response Team or County Emergency Response Team) made up of volunteers trained for disaster response and work closely with the lead agency.

• Donate to your local or state animal disaster fund.

As disasters continue to occur, it is important to remember that the cyclical work of how to plan, react, and recover is an ongoing process with many stakeholders. It is common that interest in disaster preparedness issues come and go depending on recent events, even though the communities affected will be recovering for months to years, and the emotional effects can last a lifetime. Taking a few simple steps can make the difference in caring for the animals in our lives and building resiliency for our community and ourselves.

 Shari B. O’Neill, DVM, MPH, DACVPM, is the chief shelter veterinarian at San Francisco Animal Care and Control in San Francisco.


Dog Rescue-DFID-CC1

Rescue dog by DFID-Creative Commons

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Main article photo by: Napa Earthquake by James Gunn-Creative Commons