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Pet Essentials and Preparedness for an Emergency or Disaster

Food, medication and accommodations for animals should be part of any disaster plan​

Women with two cats on a sofa
Glynis Gibson and her two cats Belle and Ariel.
Courtesy of Glynis Gibson

A relentless string of hurricanes, wildfires, floods and other natural disasters is prompting people to pack go bags and create emergency plans. Such catastrophes also put pets in danger.

Dogs, cats and other pets need a plan, too.

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"Preparedness across the board is really critical,” says Tim Rickey, vice president of the ASPCA National Field Response, the team at the nonprofit humane organization that responds to disaster situations. “If you have an older animal or an animal with high anxiety or some other medical conditions, you have to be a little bit more thoughtful and plan ahead for that so that you are able to evacuate with the right resources and supplies and take those animals into the right type of environment.”​

Last year, a national survey by the ASPCA found that less than half of pet owners have a disaster plan in place, yet 83 percent of pet owners reported living in a community that faces natural disasters. Additionally, more than 1 in 5 pet owners said they had evacuated their homes due to a disaster situation and of those evacuees, nearly half left at least one pet behind. ​

In that type of scenario, never leave without your pet, Rickey says. “Leaving a pet behind can expose them to numerous life-threatening hazards including the inability to escape the impending emergency — such as floodwaters and high winds — as well as having no access to fresh food and water for an unknown period of time,” Rickey wrote in an email. ​Here are some things to do to keep your pet safe during an emergency. ​​

Create a pet go bag

Pack an emergency kit or backpack with ample food, water and treats for a week or more. Don't forget collapsible feeding and water bowls and a can opener if needed, along with medications and first aid supplies. These may include bandages and silver sulfadiazine cream for wounds and burns. ​

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Include copies of your pet's key medical and vaccination records, so that anyone treating the animal is aware of special needs and drug contraindications. “If you have to evacuate during a disaster, vet clinics are not likely to be open, and if you're moving to another region there's going to be some delay before that prescription can be refilled,” Rickey says.​

Along those lines, make sure vaccinations are current, even for indoor cats, because they can get loose during a storm, advises Lauren Vaughan, a veterinarian in West Hollywood, California. ​​Vaughan also recommends having a printed photo of the animal on hand, in case your phone battery dies and you have no way to charge it. You might also carry a photo that includes you, too, as added proof that you are the pet's owner.​

Bring a portable litter box, pee pads and poop bags, as well as the animal's bedding, carrier and crate. An extra collar, harness or leash may come in handy. To reduce the pet's inevitable stress during the tumult, pack his or her favorite toy.​

Choose a designated caregiver

​Pick a close relative or trusted friend who can care for your animal should you become incapacitated or die. Many pet parents put their desire in writing.​

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"We have specified in a letter of wishes that goes with our will what's to happen with our cats and the money that is to go with them for their care,” says Glynis Gibson, 59, an animal advocate and owner of a Chicago public relations firm.​

As Rickey noted, never leave a pet behind. Ahead of an impending natural disaster, find hotels along your evacuation route that are welcoming to pets. The ASPCA recommends checking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website regularly for travel restrictions and quarantine requirements. If you are staying with friends or relatives check first to make sure your pet is welcome.​

Choose a safe room at home

​If you have to hunker down at home during a hurricane or tornado, choose a room, if possible, without windows, glass or objects likely to fly around, perhaps a basement, bathroom or walk-in closet. Choose higher ground in a flood. Keep a crate in this safe room.​

Put a "save our pet" alert sticker on your door or window

This alerts firefighters and first responders you have animals in the house.​

Tag and microchip your pet

Your animal should snugly wear a collar, harness and ID tag with your up-to-date contact information. “Collars come off and tags come off of collars,” says Cathy Brooks, owner of the Hydrant Club in Las Vegas, which she describes as an educational facility that helps dogs have better relationships with their humans. Brooks favors collars that have a phone number embroidered on them or have a metal bracket affixed with the data. Make sure the collar and tag are worn indoors, should you have to leave in a hurry.​

Experts highly recommend microchipping pets. Microchips are about the size of a grain of rice and are implanted by a vet under the skin in the shoulder area. The procedure is safe and can be inexpensive. Microchips contain a number or code unique to your pet, linked to information about you and the animal in a secure database through the company or organization where you register the microchip. Registration may come with an annual fee. Shelters and vets have special scanners to read the microchip, which can help you reunite with a lost pet. Make sure the information is kept current.​

Get insurance

Though pet insurance isn't necessarily cheap, it can save you hundreds or even many thousands of dollars if your pet requires urgent medical care. The decision to treat a severe injury doesn't have to come down to money.​

Reinforce recall training

You can't explain natural disasters or the need to evacuate to a dog or cat, which is why veterinarian Vaughan says she's passionate about “recall” training methods if your pet gets loose. Using treats and positive reinforcement, the idea is to ensure that your pet will come to you when you summon him or her. Such training may even include recordings of alarm sounds or emergency vehicles.​

If your pet is lost​

Despite the best precautions, pets can go missing in the midst of a disaster. Reach out to shelters, veterinary offices and Facebook groups for lost animals. “Social media becomes a really powerful tool,” Brooks says. The hopeful result is a happily ever after reunion. ​

AARP Home & Family Editor Michelle R. Davis contributed to this story.