Pet ownership is on the rise amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and people are home with their animals perhaps more than ever, day in and day out. Families with new pets may experience a number of unfamiliar situations, but figuring out what to do when facing extreme circumstances like natural disasters (think hurricanes or the winter storms in Texas) can be a particular challenge.
“Natural disasters can be scary for both humans and their pets,” Camp Bow Wow animal health and behavior consultant Erin Askeland told HuffPost. “Pets may become anxious, try to hide, or try to escape while preparing for or while experiencing a natural disaster because of the stress. The better you can prepare, the more readily you can keep you and your pet safe.”
Preparedness breeds calmness, which makes emergency situations easier for pets. It’s important to be prepared to address your and your pet’s needs when challenges arise.
So what exactly do you need to do? Below, Askeland and other experts share their advice for keeping your pets safe in the event of a disaster. Their tips include steps you should take to prepare ahead of time and what to do in the moment.
Create a disaster plan
“While no one is immune from the devastation of a natural disaster, preparing before a natural disaster hits is key to keeping everyone in your family, including your pets, safe,” said Kris Kiser, president of The TurfMutt Foundation. “It’s even more important now, in an era of social distancing due to the pandemic, that pet parents have a plan to keep their furry family members out of harm’s way if forced to take shelter elsewhere.”
Stock your home with supplies needed to shelter in place in the event of an emergency, and figure out where you’ll go if you have to evacuate your home. Have your emergency contacts updated and choose a pet-friendly destination.
“Because of the pandemic, staying with family or friends may not be an option,” Kiser noted. “Not all emergency shelters will accept pets and physical distancing guidelines may reduce capacity in public shelters. Make a plan and develop a list of pet-friendly hotels open for business and outside your immediate area that you might evacuate to.”
Prepare an emergency bag
“Pack an emergency bag well in advance of a catastrophe so you can evacuate your home quickly if needed,” Kiser said. “Choose an easy-to-carry bag, label it, and keep it where everyone in the family can find it quickly.”
He recommended filling the bag with a pet first aid kit, enough food and bottled water for a week (be sure to rotate the supply every couple of months to prevent spoiling), up-to-date medications, feeding dishes, cleanup supplies, bags for litter or waste, an extra collar and leash, copies of medical records, towels, recent photos of the pet and a favorite toy for comfort.
“Also ask your veterinarian for an emergency anti-anxiety medication, similar to what the veterinarian might prescribe for fireworks or separation anxiety,” advised Rolan Tripp, a veterinarian and co-founder of the Pet Happiness Network. In addition, he recommended calming pet pheromone products like an Adaptil collar or Feliway spray.
Microchip your pets
“Have your pets microchipped and ensure your contact information is filed correctly with the microchip manufacturer in case the worst happens and your pet gets lost,” Kiser said.
Pet microchips are radio-frequency identification implants that are roughly the size of a grain of rice. Veterinarians typically insert them with a needle between the animal’s shoulder blades, often when they’re under anesthesia already for a procedure like neutering or spaying (though they can do it during routine visits as well).
These microchips aren’t tracking devices but contain unique ID numbers, so if someone finds your pet without a collar, they can bring it to a vet or shelter to scan for identification.
“Collars and ID tags, though important, can break or detach,” Kiser added. “Microchips are more foolproof since they’re inserted under your pet’s skin.”
If you do go the microchipping route, make sure your animal’s microchip is registered with a national pet recovery database with updated contact information. You’ll also want to make sure your pet is up to date on vaccines and other preventive health measures.
Foster crate acceptance
In the event of an emergency, your pet may need to spend long stretches of time in a crate or kennel for safety, whether you’re sheltering in place or evacuating to another location. You can make this experience more tolerable by investing in a quality crate or carrier and getting your animal used to it in everyday life.
“Teach your pet to become comfortable resting in a kennel,” Tripp said. “Start kennel acceptance with dogs overnight, ideally when the dog is sleeping in a family member’s bedroom.”
Foster a positive relationship with the crate. Tripp advised giving your dog a bully stick and putting on a calming collar. You may consider putting a comfortable bed in the kennel, assuming the pet doesn’t chew, scratch or soil it.
“Begin feeding your pet all meals in a kennel using a food puzzle when you are nearby,” he suggested. “When you are eating a meal or watching television, put the pet next to you in the kennel. Put your hand where the pet can smell and lick it as comfort. Talk in a soothing voice to the pet. Give dogs a safe chew inside the kennel. For cats, add treats to the kennel and, if they like it, a little catnip toy.”
You can also get your pets more comfortable with kennel travel by taking them on short car rides in their kennels ― with treats, walks in the park and favorite activities before and after the journey.
Nurture a trusting relationship
Making sure your pet is well socialized and cared for will help them cope with stressful situations.
“Make sure that you are your pet’s safe person,” Tripp said. “You want your pets to feel safe because you are with them. Avoid scolding or punishing your pet. Instead, learn the loving ways to provide for all your pet’s daily needs and to help your pet bond to you and adjust to living in your home successfully. If your pet suffers from separation anxiety, work with your veterinarian and a behaviorist before a disaster could occur to help your pet overcome or cope with any separation distress.”
Bring pets inside with you or evacuate with them
“Bring pets inside at the first sign of danger,” Kiser said. “Disasters can be disorienting for pets, and they could run away or hurt themselves reacting to loud noises and strange changes to their landscape. Also, rain, flying debris and high winds pose a danger.”
If you have to evacuate your home, always take your pets with you. Keep them on a leash or in a kennel or carrier so that they remain with you, even if you’re in a familiar area.
“Leaving your pets behind during a natural disaster is never a good idea because they could escape or become exposed to a number of life-threatening hazards,” Kiser said.
Secure your home
If you’re weathering the event by staying in your home, “typically, you’ll want your pet in a safe and secure area of your home, wherever you take cover,” Askeland advised.
She also recommended locking all pet doors to avoid an accidental escape. Sheltering in place may be the safest option in the moment, but the noises and other sensory aspects of a natural disaster can make pets (and humans for that matter) feel overwhelmed and confused. Thus, it’s important to keep an eye on them.
“A crate may serve as additional security, but it’s important you don’t lock your pet in a crate and leave them where they are not monitored during an emergency situation,” Askeland said.
It’s a good idea to put pet alert stickers on the windows of your home “to let any rescue workers know that there are pets there,” she noted. “Add descriptions and names as well.”
Be careful after the all-clear
Even after the disaster event has ended, it’s important to be careful as you let your pet roam freely again. There may be dangerous debris or other damage, or they may be overwhelmed by the visual of the aftermath.
“When an all-clear signal is given, ensure your pet is leashed or crated before you venture out so she or he doesn’t bolt and potentially hurt themselves or become lost,” Askeland advised.
This is another reason to make sure your pets are generally comfortable on a leash, in a crate or in the car.