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Preparing for natural disasters to keep pets safe

Australians know all too well the dangers of natural disasters like bushfires, floods, heatwaves and cyclones. Sadly, these events are likely to become more frequent and intense due to climate change. The impact on human life and on communities is undeniable, but the impact on animals can also be devastating, whether farm animals, wildlife or companion animals. As a pet owner, it’s crucial to develop a plan for keeping your pets safe in case of natural disasters and to identify and attend to their needs after any immediate danger has passed.

The importance of an emergency plan

An Australian study on the preparedness and evacuation behaviour of pet owners found that of those who experienced bushfire, flood or cyclone, a third needed to evacuate. A third of those evacuees felt they were poorly prepared or unprepared for the emergency event. 57% of respondents owned multiple types of animals, with dogs and then cats being the most common, followed by horses, birds, fish, small mammals and reptiles. The time before the need to evacuate varied and was longer for floods and cyclones than for bushfires, but overall, 27% had less than three hours to leave their homes. 

This research highlights the importance of having an emergency plan that takes into account the number and type of pets and the likelihood of having to leave within a short timeframe. 

How to prepare your emergency plan

The RSPCA has developed tips to help pet owners be prepared in case of an emergency. As with your own safety, the best time for planning is before an event occurs. Some of this preparation is a routine part of being a responsible pet owner, such as ensuring your pets are identified (for cats and dogs, this means being microchipped, fitted with identification tags and registered with the local council) and making sure you have a suitable method of transportation ready or available in case the worst should happen.

The main issue to consider in advance is to identify somewhere you can evacuate your pets to, such as with family, friends, a boarding facility, animal shelter or council pound in a safe area. It is also a good idea to have the details of local emergency agencies who can inform you of pet-friendly evacuation centres. Signing up to receive alerts from emergency services on your phone or other nominated device will also assist you to move your whole family, animals included, to a safe place as soon as the risk is known, as this will avoid an emergency evacuation.

Just as we prepare emergency kits for ourselves, having a pet emergency kit somewhere handy reduces the stress of leaving during a natural disaster. Items to include are:

 

  • Transportation equipment
  • Medications
  • Collars, leads, harnesses and ID tags
  • At least a week’s supply of non-perishable food and water
  • Food and water bowls
  • At least a week’s supply of litter and litter trays for cats
  • Poo bags for dogs
  • Bedding or nesting materials
  • Toys
  • Documentation including registration and vaccination certificates (required for boarding pets), medical records/history, contact details of your veterinarian, local animal shelters and council pounds, medication instructions (and ideally a prescription) and photographs of your animals

Practising your plan through regular drills will help to identify any issues you may have overlooked and will increase your confidence and reduce panic should you be faced with a natural disaster. There are lots of resources available to help with emergency preparation, but our animals also need us to attend to their physical and emotional needs in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

If you have needed to evacuate, checking to make sure your pet will be safe when they return home is a must when taking your animals home. Dangers to eliminate may include debris that needs to be cleared out to avoid injury, surfaces to be disinfected to prevent disease, and removing contaminated food or water. Your pet’s housing may have been damaged or destroyed and you will need to make sure they have somewhere clean and dry for shelter. It’s also important to reinstate secure fencing or other enclosures and to remove any sharp or dangerous objects on the property, including live wires.

Pets can suffer from injury or illness after exposure to a natural disaster and this is not always immediately obvious. They will need to be checked over and will require veterinary attention if you notice anything unusual such as changes to appetite, thirst, toileting or energy levels. Specific signs to look out for include dehydration, skin lesions, eye injuries or gastrointestinal upset such as vomiting or diarrhoea. Exposure to bushfire smoke and pollution can cause the following symptoms, which all require veterinary attention: faster or difficult breathing, coughing, gagging, watery eyes, nasal discharge, weakness, disorientation, lethargy or depression.

Heatstroke is a medical emergency. Cats and dogs suffering from heatstroke typically show signs such as fast panting, a bright red tongue, pale or dark red gums, dizziness, vomiting, weakness, lethargy, and can also drool, appear confused, faint, be unsteady, or have nose bleeds, seizures or muscle tremors.

Impact of natural disasters on pets

Like us, the experience of facing a natural disaster can have an emotional impact on our pets, whether or not they’ve had to be evacuated. Some pets can become traumatised, particularly cats, who are vulnerable to anxiety when their environment changes. You can support your pets by returning to their normal routines as soon as possible, allowing them uninterrupted rest and showing lots of patience and TLC!

Creating a calm environment is helpful, and this may require protecting them from loud noises, such as rubbish removal. You may notice signs of stress that tell you your pet is not feeling his or her usual self. Common signs of stress in cats and dogs include changes in behaviour, excessive grooming, licking, chewing or yawning, changes in vocalisation, destructive behaviour or changes in urination. Any  alterations in your pet’s appearance, appetite or behaviour should be checked out by a veterinarian to reduce any risks to your pet’s health.

Protecting your furry friends

Our pets are dependent on us for their health and happiness, and this is particularly the case during natural disasters, whether bushfire, heatwave, flood, cyclone or other events. Emergency planning must include all pets, and as with every plan, practice makes perfect! 

Despite your best intentions, these life experiences can affect your pets both emotionally and physically. Having a pet insurance policy, such as with RSPCA Pet Insurance, offers you the security of knowing that you and your pet dog or cat have cover for eligible  veterinary treatment of injury and illness when you most need it.