Following essential steps could save your pet’s life during a natural disaster
Last June, when severe wildfires broke out in Santa Cruz County, Calif., in the middle of the day, animal services supervisor Todd Stosuy was one of a handful of emergency workers on the scene to help evacuate residents. Rushing door to door, he alerted homeowners but also began rescuing scores of pets who were home alone while their owners were at work.
As the fast-moving fire blazed through the neighborhood and burned more than a dozen homes, what Stosuy found in one backyard broke his heart. “There were two large dogs in a pen and they had been burned to death,” he tells PEOPLE Pets. “You just wonder the terror they must have felt as the fire approached and they had no way of getting out.”
The tragic scene wasn’t uncommon for Stosuy, a board member of the National Animal Control Association, which maintains guidelines for rescue workers in disaster areas. He says such tragedies can be avoided if pet owners take precautions and have plans in place with neighbors if they aren’t home. His protocols don’t just apply to wildfire zones: People living in communities prone to tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and floods need to have an emergency plan for the safety of their pets. “When I was going door to door in the fire, we didn’t have any idea how many animals were inside and what kind of animals were in the home,” he says.
In disasters, minutes count and the lives of pets and livestock may depend on a well-executed plan. As we enter the summer months, Stosuy recommends pet owners take the following essential steps in planning for a disaster:
1. Post a sticker on a window facing the street identifying the pets living there, specifying breed, color, animal’s name, and hiding places indoors. “That can save rescuers a lot of time because they’ll know what they’re looking for,” he says. Also, keep a list of medical needs in a visible spot, like a window or refrigerator.
2. Coordinate with neighbors and friends who can help your animals if you’re out of town or away at work. “If a neighbor had known those dogs were in a pen, they could have opened the gate and evacuated them, or let them run away,” he says. “Animal services can’t always be there.”
3. If you’re in a hurry to leave and can’t find a hidden pet, leave the house but keep open the doors of your home so the animal has a fighting chance of getting out alive.
4. Have your pets micro-chipped. “I wish it were a law,” Stosuy says, referring to the procedure offered by many animal shelters of injecting a microchip inside your pet containing the owner’s contact information. A control officer can then activate the chip and reunite the animal with the owner.
5. Exchange keys and disaster plans with a neighbor who can evacuate your animal if you are not home when disaster strikes. Give your neighbor your pet’s information including special needs or medications and make sure your neighbor is comfortable handling your animal.
6. Find places that can accommodate your pet if you have to evacuate; consider pet-friendly hotels, animal shelters, veterinarians, kennels and/or the home of a loved one.
7. Prepare a list of these locations and telephone numbers and store them with your pet’s emergency kit (see step 9).
8. Practice loading your pet into their carrier and your vehicle to familiarize them with the process and to increase their comfort level.
9. Create a pet emergency kit, which should include some of the following items and be kept in a container that can be easily carried: water, a can opener, pet dishes, pet carrier with identifying information on it, blanket, harness/collar or leash, medicines and dosages, and a first-aid kit.
10. Information is key when a pet is separated from its owner. It’s smart to keep the following information with your pet emergency kit; give it to your neighbors and put it on your refrigerator:
* Pet owner’s name
* Phone numbers
* Pet’s name
* License number
* Microchip number
* Other identification (tattoo, leg band, etc.)
* Physical characteristics (include color, markings, etc.)
* Behavioral characteristics (such as afraid of loud noises, biter, etc.)
* Medical information (medical condition, medications and dosages, etc.)
* Feeding schedule (special dietary needs)
* Vaccinations (rabies, etc.)
Read more tips for pet owners on PEOPLE Pets: