Editor’s note: With Hurricane Matthew bearing down in the Southeastern U.S., it’s an opportune time to republish this guide from 2015 that covers evacuating with cats because of a natural disaster.
No matter where you live, catastrophe can strike without warning. Even if you’re not susceptible to hurricanes or floods, you could be at risk for unpredictable disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes, chemical spills, or even a house fire.
Alice Moon-Fanelli, Ph.D., a certified-applied animal behaviorist with Animal Behavior Consultations in Brooklyn, Connecticut, can attest firsthand that crises happen when you least expect them. Several years ago, her chimney burst into flames.
“My husband yelled at me to get the cats,” she says. “The crates were in the cellar. Who plans on having a nightmare? As soon as the carriers came out, the cats disappeared.”
According to the American Kennel Club, approximately 500,000 pets are affected by house fires every year. In the event your kitchen catches fire or you’re ordered to evacuate, you need an emergency plan in place that includes your cats.
Jim Carson, who has a cat named Indiana and dog named Heidi, also had a close encounter with a house fire. At 1 a.m., firefighters woke him up, concerned that a nearby house fire could spread to his home.
“I kept carrying cages in the front closet,” he says. “It was quick and efficient, and I would never think about keeping them anywhere else. The outside situation was chaos and the animals were scared to death. I was able to put them in the car and out of harm’s way. I have no doubt that if they weren’t in the cages they’d have bolted.”
The Electrical Safety Foundation International suggests attaching a pet alert sticker to a window in near your front door. If you get outside without your cat, immediately tell firefighters your pet is trapped inside. Don’t go back in once you are outside.
When you evacuate, never leave your animals behind even if officials promise you’ll only be gone for a few minutes. If it isn’t safe for you, it’s not safe for your cat. A few minutes can expand into weeks before you’re permitted to return.
Dr. Dick Green, the senior director of disaster response for the ASPCA, says because disasters such as train derailments or earthquakes provide no warning, “we have to be dependent on preplanning. Anticipate. If you get word of a nearby wildfire, put [your pet] in the safe room with his toys, food and bed.”
Cats can be challenging to catch during an emergency because they instinctively hide from danger. Of course, the best-case scenario includes a well-trained cat trotting into his carrier. However, since most cats associate the appearance of the carrier with the vet, they hide. Instead of bringing the carriers out first, slip a cotton pillowcase over the cat. Once he’s in the pillowcase, slide him into a carrier and head for safety.
Better still, train your cat to go into his carrier or the safe room on command. “Keep the carrier out in the open and throw treats in there from time to time, so the cat keeps checking,” Moon-Fanelli suggests. “Keep a towel in there to make it comfy.”
Because your animal may not be able to hear your voice over alarms Herb Carver (aka The Catastrophe Geek) recommends training your cat to respond to a whistle. If you’re unable to catch him, you can whistle to him in a disaster’s aftermath.
Just like fire drills in school, go through the motions occasionally, says Lynn Molnar, founder and president of Thankful Paws mobile food bank for pets. “Know where you will drive to be safe,” she says. “Pick several locations, just in case something prevents you from taking your preferred route. If you have a plan and stay calm, your cat will too. They take their emotional cues from us.”
When you are given a lot of warning time, as with a hurricane or rising floodwaters, be proactive. Take a day of vacation and leave the potentially affected area early. You won’t need to take as many supplies. A three-day supply of cat food, water, and cat litter should suffice. Your destination will have grocery stores.
Call ahead to make sure evacuation shelters or relatives will welcome your cat, says Matt Lawrence, author of What to Do ‘Til the Cavalry Comes: A Family Guide to Preparedness in the 21st Century. Since many emergency shelters don’t allow pets, consider checking into a pet-friendly hotel. These facilities fill up fast, so make reservations as soon as you make the decision to leave.
Survival Weekly’s Jim Cobb warns shelters may require proof of immunizations, so have a complete copy of those records in your evacuation kit.
If your community doesn’t have an emergency shelter for people and pets, start the conversation now, and ask about how to start one. There are lots of pet people out there: As soon as one person speaks up, other people will join in to help!
Your cat should wear current rabies tags and a name tag engraved with your cell phone as well as a relative’s number. Should you become separated, his ID tags will provide information that can reunite you. But remember collars can come off, and with them your pet’s identity.
A microchip ensures your pet will never become separated from his ID. And equally as important as implanting the chip is registering it and notifying the registry whenever your contact information changes. If your pet doesn’t have a microchip, keep a picture of him on your cell phone for identification purposes.
Each pet needs his own carrier and a “go bag” with everything he’ll need during an evacuation. Keep emergency provisions in sturdy containers that can be carried easily (plastic tub, duffle bags, covered trash containers, etc.). Tape the checklist below to it. Make note whenever you replace food, water and medications (every six months is a good method).
The kit should include:
Have you ever had to evacuate with your cat? Tell us how it went in the comments.
Read more about disaster and preparedness on Catster:
About the author: Dusty Rainbolt ACCBC, is the vice president of the Cat Writers’ Association, editor-in-chief of AdoptAShelter.com and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She’s the award-winning author of eight fiction and non-fiction books including her most recent paranormal mystery, Death Under the Crescent Moon.