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The 5 rules for keeping pets safe in a natural disaster

An unidentified man loads a cage with his two pet rabbits inside his car as he evacuates from a wildfire in Foothill Ranch, Calif. on Monday, Oct. 22, 2007. (AP Photo/Dan Steinberg)
An unidentified man loads a cage with his two pet rabbits inside his car as he evacuates from a wildfire in Foothill Ranch, Calif. on Monday, Oct. 22, 2007. (AP Photo/Dan Steinberg)

The news reports of tornadoes in the southern Plains and the first tropical storms of the season have many people putting together their emergency survival kits.

Most of us have a good idea of what to do for the humans in our households, but what about our pets? They, too, can be strongly affected by a natural disaster, and your emergency planning should consider them as well, especially if you have more exotic pets. It’s not difficult to find shelter for a dog or cat, but sheltering a bird, rabbit or snake may be more complicated.

Here are five ways to prepare your pet for an emergency, courtesy of The National Preparedness Community, sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

SuperstormPets_Gerbils_Tarantula_AP_SethWenig

(Photo: AP/SethWenig)

1. Identify a shelter.

Before disaster strikes, contact your local office of emergency management to see whether you will be allowed to evacuate with your pets. You’ll also want to ask whether there will be shelters that accept pets along with their people. If you have to place your pets at a boarding kennel or animal shelter, or with a veterinarian, they’ll want to see up-to-date medical records for your pets. Make sure you have a copy on hand.

In addition, you should find a pet-friendly safe place for your family and pets. There are several websites that list pet-friendly lodgings, including Pet Friendly Hotels and Petswelcome.com. Each of the major hotel chains also lists specific properties that are pet friendly along with the restrictions at each one.

If all else fails, plan to stay with a friend or family member. During Superstorm Sandy, my family and I were forced to evacuate with two 60-lb. dogs. Luckily, we had an understanding family member who lived farther inland and welcomed all of us.

But it can be more difficult to find a shelter for more unusual pets. In this Nov. 1, 2012, photo (above), Gregory Labidou, right, tries to figure out what to do with his pet gerbils and tarantula after he was forced to evacuate his home because of damage from Superstorm Sandy in the Midland Beach section of Staten Island, N.Y. His aunt, Irmine Celestine, left, agreed to take the gerbils, but not the tarantula, until Labidou could find a more permanent place to stay.

British-short-hair-cat-with-carrier-and-supplies-SS-absolutimages

(Photo: Shutterstock/absolutimages)

2. Prepare a pet kit.

Take pet food, bottled water, pet medications, veterinary records, cat litter and a pan, a manual can opener, food dishes, a pet first aid kit and other supplies with you in case they’re not available later. Each pet is unique, but each pet needs at least the basics in case of an emergency.

When we evacuated, I made sure to bring the dogs’ favorite toys and crate mats, as well as the large bag of dog food and treats, plus food and water bowls so they had some things that were familiar. We also needed leashes and walking collars as we use an electric fence at home. My friend, who owns four cats, added a scratching post to her list when she evacuated to a family member’s house during Superstorm Sandy.

Dog-in-water-with-collar-and-tag-SS-Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH

(Photo: Shutterstock/Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH)

3. Update your pet’s ID.

Make sure your pet’s identification tags are up-to-date and securely fastened to your pet’s collar. If possible, attach the address and phone number of your evacuation site. If you haven’t already, consider having a microchip embedded under your pet’s skin. It’s been proven safe, and it helps to get your pet home to you in case you’re separated during an evacuation or disaster.

The ASPCA also recommends getting a pet sticker to put on your windows to alert rescuers that there are pets in your home.

St-Bernard-puppy-with-3-kittens-SS-Rita Kochmarjova

(Photo: Shutterstock/Rita Kochmarjova)

4. Protect your pet during a disaster.

Animals have instincts about severe weather changes and will often isolate themselves if they’re afraid. One of our dogs was so afraid of thunder and lightning that she would regularly hide under the crib in my daughter’s room. (Have you tried to find a black dog in the dark on a dark brown rug when she doesn’t want to be found?)

Bring your pets inside as soon as you have warning of severe weather, which can stop them from running away. Even if your dogs and cats normally get along fine, be prepared for them to act irrationally because of the emergency situation. If your pet is prone to anxiety, speak with your vet in advance about having medication or a device like a ThunderShirt™ to keep the pet calmer.

Woman-with-iguana-and-chihuahua-AP-Harry Cabluck

(Photo: AP/Harry Cabluck)

5. Keep an eye on your pet after an emergency.

Your pets’ behavior may change after an emergency. Normally quiet and friendly pets may become aggressive or defensive. (One of my dogs developed separation anxiety.)

You need to watch your pets closely, keeping dogs on a leash and in a fenced yard with access to shelter and water. Familiar scents and landmarks may be altered and your pet may become confused and lost.

Remember that you’ll need to keep taking care of your pets even after the disaster. If your home is damaged and you feel unsettled, so will they.

Have you had to deal with pets and a disaster? Please share your stories and advice with us in the comment section.

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