It seems like hardly a week goes by that we aren’t hearing about a natural or man-made disaster on the news. Hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, hazardous waste spills, floods, gas leaks and other catastrophic events put our families and our pets at risk with frightening speed and regularity.
I recently had a chance to speak with Marilyn Knapp Litt, the Director of Lost Dogs of Texas and an expert in lost pet prevention and recovery during and after a disaster. Marilyn was instrumental in developing a volunteer group which helped thousands of pets reunite with their families after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many pet owners were forced to abandon their pets during this crisis because of mandatory evacuations that prohibited them from taking their animals. In 2006, the PETS Act was passed, a federal law which changed the way mandatory evacuations for people with pets are handled.
Marilyn provided some insight and useful tips for disaster planning for the average pet owner as well as for shelters, rescues and other organizations which might respond. Here are her answers to the questions I asked.
What things should a pet owner do when they have been given warning that a natural disaster is imminent?
- Get the shot records for your animals. If you want to board your dogs and cats, they will probably be required to have current vaccines given at least a week to two weeks before. This is especially true for the Bordatella vaccine for dogs. If your animals have to to to an evacuation shelter and you do not have their records, they may be vaccinated again. Over Vaccination of an already stressed animals is never a good idea.
- Everywhere that welcomes animals fills up fast. Reserve at a motel or boarding facility with a 24 hour cancellation policy and cancel if there will not be an evacuation.
- Get out your pets’ crates and put bedding in them, so your animals get used to seeing them. Sometimes showing the crate to your cat means the cat will hide. Getting the crate out in advance will help habituate your cat so you can get him into the crate and avoid last minute panic.
- Take a look at one of the many online lists of what to take when you evacuate with an animal. Chances are you are going somewhere you can get food, so don’t take the whole bag. Make a baggie for each animal with enough food for a few meals and any medicine they require.
- Be sure there is identification on your dogs and cats, even if you have to write a phone number on their collar with a Sharpie. Have your pet’s’ microchip numbers with your important papers and take them with you. Call your microchip company to make sure that all of your contact information is current.
- Keep your animals away from stress, commotion and open doors.
What should a pet owner do if they have to evacuate?
TAKE ALL YOUR ANIMALS! The safest way to transport animals is in a crate. Keep the leash near the crate for easy access. Animals who are not crated should have a harness and be secured with a strap that clicks into the seatbelt. Take an item of bedding or their favorite toy so your pet will have something comforting and familiar.
What are the problems with “too many cooks in the kitchen” after a disaster when everyone is trying to help?
The problem is often that State Animal Response Teams are focused on large animal rescue (such as livestock and horses). With no plans for pets, their care may be left to whoever is local. Local help can be ideal, but only if the organization has planned for a disaster. Otherwise the local rescue may be overwhelmed. National organizations never come in immediately. They need to evaluate if they are needed and they must be invited by the ruling authority. During this delay, local rescues will be on their own. Social media will help with letting people know who to contact when they find animals or if they need help for their own animals.
How can shelters and local authorities prepare and then execute a successful plan to reunite as many pets as possible?
The biggest problem I see is lack of coordination on intake. If facts are collected such as “where was the animal found,” and if pictures are taken and immediately posted online, some animals may be reunited right away, reducing the burden on rescuers. Sometimes the finder volunteers to foster, but has no way to connect with the rescued animal, so provide the finder with contact information and an intake number. Often the person will also find the owner and it just makes everything run smoother if the owner knows who to call and what to ask for.
Every group handling animals should have someone to post animals to Pet FBI and that person should spread the word on social media that all the animals may be found in the Pet FBI database. This person should be dedicated to cataloging animals and making the public aware of what help is needed. By having one person dedicated to social media, you don’t lose a volunteer, you recruit a community. Too often a rescue is turned inward trying to contain the chaos, and in doing that, they inadvertently turn their back on help and the reputation in the community may suffer. Transparency is important. The biggest public relations fiascos come when the public feels they are being excluded and when they can’t find photos of animals. Have a plan on what information is acceptable to reclaim an animal. You have to be flexible when records have been destroyed, but you still have to be certain an animal is leaving with his owner.
I would like to thank Marilyn for her insightful answers to my questions and I hope this has inspired you to make sure that you and your pets are prepared for when disaster strikes.