Monday, October 29, 2012

What we can learn from hurricane Sandy about disaster planning for pets

I’m watching the news from the east coast where hurricane Sandy is hitting. The mayor of Philadelphia said they have more than 360 people and 28 pets in their two shelters. Millions of people are without power.

So let’s have a serious talk about what you need to do now in order to be one of the few people who can navigate evacuations well with your pets (either from fire, from earthquake, or whatever may befall us on the west coast).

Let me start by saying that I firmly believe that every dog should be trained to be happy hanging out for a few hours in a comfortable crate. This is not something you should let lapse after your puppy housetraining is done. Having a crate-trained dog gives you much better options when it comes to evacuations.

My friend Nancy had to evacuate her home with her elderly Lab, Mozart. She had very little time, and in her haste she forgot her cellphone. Those of us who knew she was having to evacuate were trying to call her to offer her accommodations, but she didn’t get any of our messages. The small evacuation center that was provided for fire evacuees would not allow them to bring their dogs in. She had packed her SUV solid with her possessions, so she could not even recline her seats to sleep in the car. She ended up laying a blanket on the concrete in a parking lot, and trying to sleep like that with her dog leashed to her. It was miserable. And it was totally unnecessary.

Everyone should own a crate that folds up flat. In a hurry, you throw the crate into your car with your dog and other supplies, and you head for shelter. Because you have a crate trained dog, you have many more options than people with pets who aren’t used to being crated.

Don’t think you can impose a crate environment on your dog who isn’t used to being crated in the midst of the incredible stress and chaos of an evacuation center. Your dog may freak out, and will bark and panic and make the environment impossible for everyone else concerned. You need your dog to be cooperative, calm, and quiet.

This “call for crating” is especially relevant to healthcare workers or first responders who are obligated to drop everything and assist in emergencies, often for days at a time. It is a Joint Commission requirement that hospitals provide some kind of accommodation for the pets of their staff who are asked to come in and dedicate themselves to assisting for days at a time during a disaster (in these circumstances, the staff typically doesn’t go back and forth from home, and roads may in fact be impassable). People who report for duty with their well trained, crate trained dog will provide a much safer, calmer environment for their pet. The familiar bed and the familiar crate will help the dog remain calmer than it would otherwise. During a disaster, hospitals have enough to deal with without having to also try to handle out of control, unrestrained pets. Don’t let your pet be one of them.

In the rampant California fires a few years ago, I heard that county animal shelters were offering shelter for the pets of evacuees. How, I wondered, did they have the space to offer shelter, when we know their kennels are already full to the brim with dogs and cats who are hoping to be adopted? Were they suddenly euthanizing them? I would never want my dog’s need for shelter to possibly cause the euthanization of unadopted animals in the county shelters. And I can only imagine how stressful it would be for my dogs to be separated from me and put into a county shelter kennel, with other dogs who are panicking at being put there as well. Instead, my dogs will be safely crated with their own beds and water bowls, and I will reduce my impact on the emergency response system. I’ll have access to them, I can move them around as needed, and can retain much more control over their care and welfare.

Every dog—EVERY dog should be crate-trained. It makes it easier for your friends to take your dog in during an emergency. It makes it easier for you to travel and vacation with your dog. And it gives you a lot more control and options during a disaster.