As Hurricane Florence threatened the coast of North Carolina in September 2018, a Labrador retriever I'd treated in my veterinary practice ran away while his family hastily prepared to evacuate inland to safety. After hours of searching, with heavy hearts, they decided to abandon their efforts and evacuate, leaving their four-legged family member behind.
It's a tragically common decision that too many families face in a disaster, whether it’s tornadoes like those now slamming a large swath of the country, a wildfire ripping through the neighborhood, or a hurricane that creates a nightmare lasting long after the storm has passed.
In 2017, hundreds of pets were impacted by Hurricane Harvey, and 200,000 pets were displaced after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But even in the worst circumstances, preparation can help you keep your pets with you, keep them healthy, and maximize your chances of reunification if they must be left behind. Having taken critical steps to prepare, my clients were eventually reunited with their dog. With this advice, a similar story could have a happy ending for your family as well.
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Make sure your pet is up to date on vaccines and microchipped. During natural disasters, pets' exposure to disease-causing pathogens may increase. For example, displaced wildlife may have increased contact with domestic animals, heightening the risk of rabies. It is critical that your pets have all of their vaccinations to avoid life-threatening illness. Additionally, make sure your pet wears a collar with identification and is microchipped and registered with a national pet recovery database. A microchipped animal is much more likely to be reunited with its family if lost in a disaster.
Plan for transportation. Have all of the supplies necessary to transport your pets, including leashes and carriers, in an easily accessible location. Acclimate your pet to the carrier prior to an emergency. Disasters are stressful, and it is helpful if the animal feels comfortable in its carrier.
Have an emergency plan for your pet. You probably have some idea where you can go in an emergency, but what about your pets? Have an emergency pet accommodation plan that includes local and regional options like veterinary clinics, boarding facilities, pet-friendly hotels, animal shelters, and family or friends.
Prepare a disaster kit. In addition to a disaster kit for the people in your home, you should prepare one for your pets. This should include food and water for at least three days, although a two-week supply is ideal. Ensure medications, a first-aid kit, familiar items like bedding and toys, cleaning supplies and important documents, such as veterinary and vaccination records, microchip information, and recent photos of your pet, are all easily accessible.
What if evacuation is not an option?
For a variety of reasons, it could be deemed unsafe to evacuate. Even in instances where authorities advise sheltering in place, it is vital to be prepared for any eventuality. Pets should be kept securely indoors, preferably with you, in an interior room without windows. Remember: If conditions are unsafe for us, they are equally unsafe for our pets. If directed to evacuate, it's always best to take your pets with you.
If you must leave your pets behind during an evacuation, make sure they have access to adequate food and water. Don't chain or tie them up, as they need to be able to move freely as conditions in the house change. Make sure your neighbors are aware that you have pets, and place a sticker on the entrance to your home noting the species and number of animals on the property for rescue personnel.
A disaster, whether wide in scale, like a hurricane, or personally damaging, like a house fire, can happen at any time, so now is the time to prepare. Sit down with your family and make a plan for both yourselves and your pets. You may never need to use it, but preparation will ensure your entire family, humans and animals, can be safe if the worst happens.
Christa Gallagher is an associate professor of Veterinary Public Health and Epidemiology at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine. The American Veterinary Medical Association's Pets and Disasters site has more information on how to prepare for emergencies.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 4 ways to make sure your pet survives tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes and other disasters