Get ready, stay ready: caring for pets during a crisis

pet fire

by Betsy Lane, MA

Roughly 215 years ago, English romantic poet William Wordsworth wrote, “The world is too much with us.” Although the context is different, 2017 has been a year of earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, and other disasters, and it’s enough to make anyone feel overwhelmed and wonder what we would do if a disaster struck our town, our block, our family, or our pets.

I grew up in California, where wildfires were a frequent threat. In October 2017, the Tubbs Fire in Northern California broke the record for the most destructive wildfire in California’s history—and it was just one of 21 active fires in that state at the time. Wildfires pose challenges to preparedness, because they move quickly and unpredictably, depending on wind speed and direction, humidity, terrain, available fuel, and other factors we don’t normally think too much about. Hurricanes can be tracked, and it’s likely that you’ll get at least a dozen hours advance warning (which, of course, never seems like enough time when you’re in the middle of it). With wildfires, a simple shift in wind direction can leave you with mere minutes to escape with the clothes on your back and, hopefully, your pets in your car.

We’ve already covered things that business owners can do to prepare for natural disasters like hurricanes. In this post, I’m going to narrow the focus a bit to what you as individuals can do to prepare for rapid-onset emergencies such as the California wildfires (jointly referred to as the “October Fire Siege” of 2017) that destroyed an estimated 7,700 homes and businesses and resulted in 100,000 Californians being evacuated from their homes.

The primary piece of equipment is the Go Bag. This will contain your pets’ essentials, including a first-aid kit.  Also include your pets’ medications, leashes, bowl, food, poop bags, baby wipes/hand sanitizer, proof of ownership, and current photos (if you get separated, you’ll use these to post or share). You can make a pet first-aid kit yourself, or augment a purchased kit. It’s not hard; it’s actually kind of fun. You just have to do it. Helpful lists for dogs, cats, and other companion animals can be found at the link above or on the PetMD, HSUS, and ASPCA websites. 

CalFire is a great resource for all kinds of information about how to prepare, safeguard, evacuate, and return to your home after a wildfire. Their website has videos and information designed to keep you safe, and most of their advice applies to other emergency situations, as well.

Ideally, you should have a Go Bag by near each exterior door of your dwelling, plus one in the garage and one in your vehicle. Do not, under any circumstances, stash your Go Bag in an out-of-the-way, hard-to-reach spot. Your lives might depend on your ability to evacuate immediately — do not pass go, do not collect a bunch of supplies in the back of the closet under the stairs. Gather your pets, grab the Go Bags, and GET OUT. At the very least, have a Go Bag in your car and one by the door you’re most likely to use to get to the car. As CalFire advises everyone, “Prepare now, and go early.”

Creating a good Go Bag is critical, but taking a couple additional steps now will ensure your pets’ safety should disaster strike.

First, arrange a safe haven. The ASPCA reminds pet guardians, “If it isn’t safe for you, it isn’t safe for your pets.” Because you’re likely to be panicked (and possibly without phone service), write down a few options and keep the list in your Go Bag. The list should include boarding facilities, hotels, friends, relatives, stables, etc.—any place you have recently confirmed will board pets in an emergency. While you’re making lists, grab a map and highlight or write down multiple evacuation routes from your home to your safe haven(s).

Second, consider who will care for your pets if you can’t. Your short-term person (for example, if you can’t get home for a few days; this is often a neighbor) might be different from your long-term/permanent person (usually a close friend or relative, for a worst-case scenario). Be sure your short-term and long-term people have each other’s contact information and a way to access your animals if you’re not there.

Finally, when the immediate danger is over, inspect your pets closely for injuries, brush them well, and give them a bath. As soon as possible, all pets should go to a professional groomer for a more thorough bath and complete grooming session to remove any lingering toxins, irritants, and smokiness or other foul odors in the coat. A trip to the vet is also in order, to be sure your pet is A-OK inside and out. If you have been evacuated to an unfamiliar location, you can find a highly qualified groomer at any PetSmart Grooming Salon,  and an AAHA-certified veterinary clinic almost anywhere in the United States.

Plotting out a solid emergency plan will help keep you and your pets safe in case disaster strikes — and that means you’re more likely to be fully present and available to help the animals and people in your life. Perhaps best of all, preparing in these ways now will make all the “what ifs” a whole lot less overwhelming.

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