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Protecting pets in the face of disaster

Ashley Farmer and Sarah DeYoung with one of the Hurricane Harvey cats at an animal shelter.

Ashley Farmer (right) and Sarah DeYoung with one of the Hurricane Harvey cats at an animal shelter.

It is not uncommon to read about preparing for disasters. However, there are not many research efforts and materials dedicated to planning for pets in the face of disaster.

While working on a project on hurricane evacuation and sheltering as a graduate student at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center, Ashley Farmer, currently a criminal justice science professor at Illinois State, discovered this gap. “While doing interviews, we would ask questions like, ‘Is there anyone else who you would be responsible for in an evacuation?’ Although the implication was in reference to people, respondents often mentioned their pets. In fact, they did this quite a bit, even though there were no questions on the survey about pets.”

This was a lightbulb moment for Farmer. She started working with a colleague, Sarah DeYoung, on their first paper about pets and disasters, using that data to flesh out details about what people would do in consideration of their pets.

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Farmer’s work with saving pets did not stop at a paper in graduate school. “Later, we conducted a survey directly about pet owners during a disaster when we gathered data after Hurricane Matthew, and that eventually led us to do more research on this issue. From the NSF (National Science Foundation) Rapid grant, we collected data from evacuees and shelter coordinators from seven disasters in the United States (including hurricanes, wildfires, and the lava flows in Hawaii).

“In addition to this, Sarah DeYoung and I are both huge animal lovers with several pets of our own, so we know how important (but also how difficult) it is to plan for your family and your pets. Most importantly, research has shown that sometimes if people cannot bring their pets, they will not leave at all. Increasing evacuation compliance by including pets in emergency management plans is an important endeavor that can potentially save human lives as well.”

It is important to understand the ways pets can be protected during disasters. Pet owners must plan ahead and stay prepared for disasters. “Having public shelters that accommodate pets is important, and it’s also important that people are made aware of pet-friendly shelter locations,” Farmer said. “We heard from respondents after Hurricane Matthew who indicated that they did not know where to go, or which sources to trust when seeking information about pet-friendly shelters. In some cases, they had to drive for hours to find a pet-friendly hotel. Co-location shelters after Hurricane Harvey worked well in Texas. Pets were kept in separate accommodations, but their owners could very easily come check on them, feed them, and walk them. Volunteers helped look after the pets as well. It’s much less stressful (for the pet and the owner) when you know your pet is safe and nearby.”

Another problem that occurs after a disaster is re-entry where someone has left a pet behind under the assumption they can return rather quickly. This can also happen if an area floods unexpectedly and no one is home at the time. During one of her interviews, Farmer spoke with a respondent who was at work when Hurricane Harvey rains hit. Although her neighborhood was flooded, she still walked miles through water to go back for her dog. “Re-entry can create issues for emergency managers as well, when residents return to the ‘red zone’ to retrieve pets before the area is declared safe,” Farmer said. “However, the reality is that people will come back for their pets, whether they are allowed to or not.”

Finally, Farmer shared actionable ways to go beyond theory in pet preparedness. The first step according to her is to include your pets in the disaster plan for the family. “Keep a checklist of any necessary items you would have to bring in the event of an evacuation—and be sure to include vet/vaccination records if possible. It might occur that you will have to leave in a hurry. Having recent photos of your pet is helpful in case they get scared and run off or get lost. Also having a way to transport your pet is important: leash, collar, and/or crate. Planning ahead for pet-friendly locations is a good idea—even locations that are further from home.”

Further, Famer advises pet owners to microchip their pets and keep the information up to date. Pet owners can also find out (pet) shelters that are willing to assist. For example, after Hurricane Harvey, one shelter agreed to foster pets for anyone who was evacuating and could not bring their pet with them.

Farmer agrees that there is a lot of misinformation that is sometimes spread over social media about pets and disasters. Therefore, individuals must be sure to confirm information ahead of disasters. For example, there’s an existing rumor that hotels and motels must accept one’s pets in the event of a disaster because of the PETS Act, which is unfortunately not true even though some hotels/motels might sometimes make individual exceptions, Farmer said. The PETS Act (2006) only requires states to include companion animals in their emergency management plans in order to receive federal funding.