Whether they’re solely companion animals or serve some level of function, many of us have animals. In some cases, they are members of our families as well as partners. Having accepted responsibility for them – simple companion, paddock pony, pet horses, livestock guardian donkeys and llamas, barn cats, or working dogs of various types – we are responsible for their welfare in a disaster. I’ll start with some of the tough situations first, and then list some tips for evacuating with animals or temporarily surrendering them to a shelter for a natural disaster.
When it comes to disaster planning for pets and livestock, we tend to have a lot of choices in North America, especially the United States. More and more human shelters are accepting crated and kenneled animals. Animal shelters and rescues also accept cats, dogs and other small companion animals in advance of hurricanes or when flood evacuation orders are issued. ASPCA barnyards will commonly work with owners as well, given enough of a head’s up. We have enough advanced warning of storms — and even wildfires to some degree – to heighten awareness and choose to evacuate them if it looks at all sketchy.
There are a few steps we can take to make evacuations a little easier.
One thing we should not do, ever, is leave them to fend for themselves, whether we think we’ll be back in a couple of days, or we’re thinking of setting them “free” or dumping them on somebody’s property.
If we evacuate, we need to evacuate our animals.
Following ever major hurricane and regularly after fires out West, people flood shelters and help lines because they’ve left pets and companion animals behind, and now roads are closed or completely washed out, bridges are missing, and roads are blocked by downed trees.
Private and public-funded rescuer organizations go out in force to try to save as many as they can, but animals perish. In some cases, they wind up far from home, never identified, and never adopted.
Some time on the phone ahead of a disaster, attention to weather news, and pre-packing for animals can mitigate some of the complications and make it possible for us to get our animals out of harm’s way before highways and roads become clogged or impassable.
If we act early, we can also work through local shelters and rescues to leave our animals with them while we evac or take refuge in a storm shelter.
In a long-term disaster, stray animals are almost guaranteed to increase in number. In some cases, it will be because they got lost and without infrastructure, were never returned. Unaltered animals will increase, and then further multiply, adding to the loose animal populations.
And then there will be the people who dump their animals.
Nine times out of ten, a pet is ill-equipped to survive on its own. A cat that seems to be an excellent hunter and one that is already outdoors may seem like a good candidate to take off somewhere and leave to fend for itself.
There are a lot of ways to die in this world, especially for animals, many of them slow and painful. They’ll be in competition with other animals. Coyotes and cougars already kill and consume even sizable canines every year – deeper and deeper into residential areas. Livestock owners are going to be totally justified in shooting animals that could menace their own either through predation or the spread of disease.
It’s already heartbreakingly common for people to dump dogs and cats across a gate in rural properties, especially if they see there are already dogs or cats.
Resist that temptation, too.
One, a lot of us in rural areas have dogs that double as flock and herd protection. Those dogs will attack and kill strange animals, especially if the newcomer chases or bristles up at them.
Two, it puts the “strange” cat, dog, bird, or goat at risk of fighting with existing dominant animals, or a whole pack of them, and it puts our animals at risk, makes us pay for meds and vet bills after a fight, even if there’s no death.
Three, some of us have donkeys that will stomp a canine and even the odd cat to death. Our dogs know to avoid them, or we have a hot line or fence you may not see to keep them separate.
Four, chances are good we are already at our carrying capacity for animals, well ahead of a crisis, and have not planned to feed an additional dog or cat or five. That means we’re left with the sad duty somebody else is dodging, and have to take it in to a shelter (now) or, in the future, may have to choose between chasing it away and hoping it doesn’t starve to death or run afoul of a local stray pack, and killing it so that at least it doesn’t suffer any more.
Those are sucky choices. They’re really sucky to lay at somebody else’s feet.
We need to plan to do the responsible thing and take care of our animals ourselves. In some scenarios, with no shelters/rescues/vets available, the kindest thing we can do will be to cull our herds and-or euthanize our companion animals.
Personally, I think everybody who considers getting livestock or a companion animal should have to volunteer at a shelter. They might weigh out the financial and emotional costs associated with animals – and the trials of disaster planning and recovery for them – a little more closely. There should be a lifelong commitment to that animal, and to treating even livestock respectfully.
No matter how well we plan, our companion animals will end up with low quality of life from age, disease, or severe injury.
With any luck, we’ve considered that and are prepared to end their suffering.
In most situations we’ll face, there will still be options. Some pre-planning and supplies can prevent the need to choose between keeping a healthy animal and leaving it at a shelter permanently or long-term, or having to euthanize at home due to widespread, long-term crises that leave them slowly starving.
It’s not the easiest thing with multiple animals, especially larger livestock, but just as we have BOB’s and evac kits, multiple methods of evacuation, and plans for our families, we need to have the same for the critters in our lives.
When the authorities say it’s time to go, go.
Yes, sometimes to regularly it’s no big deal. There’s a lot of moving parts with animals, though, especially larger livestock. Hotels and campgrounds that accept dogs and cats are more common now, but in an evacuation, they’ll be getting picked over. Especially with livestock, whether it’s fire or flood risk, don’t delay.
Waiting too long puts animals and rescuers at risk after the fact. It’s easier and safer for everyone just to get them out early.
If we have livestock that won’t fit in the backseat or pickup bed, we need a trailer. It’s almost that simple to me.
We need something we can rig with a ramp and cattle fencing even, and we need to train livestock to ascend and descend. Horses, goats, and cattle are lost in every wildfire, from Fort Mac to California and Arizona, because they won’t load when seconds and minutes count.
People in Fort Mac were supposed to have been safe, so some of the ones who ran out of fuel and rode their horses out or lost the seniors and slow ones to lung damage later have an excuse, but by and large, we can pay enough attention to cut and run. If we have to call around finding trailers and vans first, we’re already behind the curve.
If we have cats and dogs, we need to socialize them and we need to train them to go on trips or to load in crates, too.
If we have multiple small companions, sheep or goats, it may be absolutely necessary that we have enough crates and kennels on hand to move them at once – and thus, a vehicle or trailer capable of holding those crates and kennels, even if we have to stack them.
Animals that are friendly when loose may become aggressive with each other when stressed and over-tired. One trick is to keep cardboard, plywood or blankets on hand that we can arrange around, over and between crates if we need them. The visual barriers can help keep the peace.
Attach information about the animal to that animal, as well as to their crate or trailer. For dogs and cats, and even goats, that might be a collar or harness with a standard tag on it.
On their leads, crates, or trailers attach a larger card or sheet that’s cased in plastic with primary and secondary contact information, and a second point of contact.
Note any behavioral issues or medical needs. It can help keep others and the animals safe.
If the animal is being surrendered to a shelter temporarily, include the same and make sure there are updated photos for claiming them after the disaster.
There is livestock marking ink that can be used to write a name or number (or both) on even medium or large dogs as well as hoofstock. In an evacuation scenario, it’s not a terrible idea to use them.
For smaller animals, it’s easiest to have a pre-cut stencil that says “Baby Parris – ###-###-####” and color the fur through it with the sticks or spray.
Just like humans, animals should have a go bag or go kit.
When I had larger animals, hefty rolling trash cans that I could lash to the very front or the very back of the trailer(s) or run off the porch onto my tailgate and pickup bed were handy. I could carry several days of grain feed, a set of tack, electric fencing and battery/batteries, long-lines and short leads, shipping blankets and booties, and the Old Man’s old-horse mash mix and supplements in a couple of trash cans.
I also had a rolling trash can with a portion cut out near the bottom and a board blocking the hole that I could fill with hay and bring with us, then just haul down about a square bale and a quarter if I needed to. Both the ponies and the goats could feed from it.
They were easy to grab and pre-load if things started looking iffy, so that I could just load the animals when we made the call to cut and run.
For smaller companion animals or just a couple of goats, life can get even easier.
Several days of water and-or food and-or dishes can just wait around in rolling coolers. Coolers lose some space efficiency, but they’re nice and sturdy (and usually make handy seats and umbrella props). They can also be made water-resistant pretty easily with a roll of duct tape. Rolling luggage and storage totes offers a lot of the same advantages.
With kits pre-packed and ready to go, all we do is rotate the contents.
As with humans, they’ll need shelter and water, which can be wow-painful for large stock. Research the area and contact the ASPCA or Humane Society, Sheriff’s department, or animal rescues within your county and area to find out if they have ideas or resources you can tap. Do it well in advance of an emergency.
There are some parks that do still allow livestock. Another option is to work through the county extension, farm bureau, and county co-ops to find somebody at 20-50-150-300 mile intervals who would be willing to let you camp on their properties and pump or haul water.
It can be difficult to deal with everything in the moment of a crisis. There are fifty-five things to remember to do and load. Make a checklist to make it easier, and have a way to stick it right by the door.
When we make our lists and plans, hopefully we’re preparing for our animals. With any luck, we’re taking them into consideration for the everyday and seasonal/annual occurrences that strike our modern world regularly. Planning for long-term care of pets and livestock can be difficult, especially if we’re not yet where we want to be for our human families.
It needs to be done, though. Like our children, our animals are helpless in a world we create for them. They count on us to be the responsible party.
Sometimes that can mean we have hard choices and tough actions that we need to be ready to take. Just like in our modern world, at some point a working animal or companion is going to be gray and pained, overcome by tumors, or crippled with disease or injury. Right now and in a lot of situations, shelters are available if we have no recourse left. If we’re planning on some WROL, nation-altering event, we need to plan to deal with those scenarios ourselves.
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