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When Disaster Strikes

Hurricanes, earthquakes, lightning, wildfires, floods -- such events can turn lives upside down not just for us, but for our dogs as well. Every year, thousands of pets are separated from their owners in the face of disaster. While it is impossible to know when disaster will strike, it is possible to increase the odds that your furry friends will stay safe.

Written by Cary Waterhouse, DVM | Photos courtesy of HSUS

Take the seemingly miraculous story of Bella and Dieter, a pair of dachshund mixes who experienced the most horrific disaster in recent memory, the earthquake in Haiti.

According to Jordan Crump, spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States, “A day after the earthquake struck, we received an urgent plea for help from an American couple living in Port-au-Prince. They’d been forced to evacuate very quickly and were not able to bring along their two dogs. We explained that we were working to get responders into Haiti as soon as possible, and pledged that we would do everything we could to help once our team hit the ground.

“Here’s the remarkable news,” Crump continues. “Our team has located the dogs. They are in good health and now in our safe keeping.”

What makes this story even more remarkable? Bella and Dieter not only lived through a Magnitude 7.0 earthquake, they previously survived a Category 4 hurricane—the pair were found roaming the streets of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Animals can and do survive and thrive following a disaster. But planning for your pets requires some advance preparation. Following the steps below can greatly minimize the amount of on-the-spot planning you may have to do.

Step 1: Be ready

In the event that you need to kennel your dogs or bring them into a shelter, they will need to be up to date on their vaccines. Make sure you keep a record of these, along with any medical problems your pet may have—this information will help the person responsible for their care. In case of separation, make sure your pet is wearing ID tags with an up-to-date phone number AND address or has a microchip with current registration.

In case of an emergency in your absence, a door or window decal can alert rescuers that animals are in the home. It is also a good idea to have a trusted neighbor briefed on how to care for your dog in your absence (feeding instructions, medications and special needs).

Step 2: Assemble a disaster kit for each of your pets

Experts say to pack enough food and water for five days. If that includes canned food, be sure to pack a can opener. Check the kit every few months and replace stale food and water. Don’t forget to include prescription and over-the-counter medications. In addition to food and water, the Humane Society of the United States recommends packing these items:

  • Sturdy leash and collar/harness with ID tags
  • First aid supplies like gauze, bandages, hydrogen peroxide and antiseptic ointment
  • Pet waste disposal bags
  • Muzzle (even well behaved dogs can get scared)
  • Medical/vaccine records
  • Current photograph


Step 3: Research

If you are forced to be out of your home for more than a day, it is helpful to know where you can go with your dog, as most emergency shelters do not allow animals due to public health concerns. Keep a list of pet-friendly hotels and boarding facilities handy—check petswelcome.com for a list of hotels sorted by city. It is also helpful to know the potential for disaster in your area—be it an earthquake, flooding, mudslide etc. Then be ready with an escape route.

Even with all the planning in the world, when an emergency hits, how you respond will make all the difference in the well-being of your pet. Remember that what is stressful and an inconvenience for you is probably turning your dog’s world upside down! Even calm and happy dogs can become disoriented, scared or even aggressive. Be sure to make constant assessments of your dog’s mental and physical well-being.

If you evacuate, FEMA recommends taking your pets with you, even if it means getting them to a boarding facility. During an evacuation, keep your dog on a leash and separated from other dogs or animals. In a hotel or shelter setting, walks and bathroom breaks should take place with direct supervision and control.

If your dog is injured, cuts or scrapes should be cleaned until veterinary care can be found, and more severe bleeding should be treated with direct pressure (at least 10 constant minutes over the wound with gauze or a clean T-shirt).

If you absolutely have no other choice but to leave dogs behind:

  • Do not tie them up or leave them in a crate
  • Leave out plenty of food and water
  • Place a notice outside your home with pet information, contact information, and the name and phone number of your pet’s veterinarian.

In the unfortunate event that you and your dog become separated, check local shelters on a daily basis, and make sure area pet stores and veterinary offices are made aware—a “lost dog” flier with a current picture can really make a difference.

When the danger has passed and you are able to return home, take a few moments to assess any damage—broken glass, downed power lines, sinkholes and debris can be very dangerous. Make sure the coast is clear and fencing is secure before letting your dog out unattended.

And to every Bella and Dieter, a happy ending.

Puget Sound-area native Cary Waterhouse, DVM, is the founder of Lake Union Veterinary Clinic, focusing on comprehensive veterinary care for dogs and cats. His goal is prevention of disease, wellness and routine exams, laboratory diagnostics and imaging, and complete and compassionate treatment for sick or injured animals.

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