As residents of southern Florida prepare for Hurricane Irma, many are including four-legged family members in their plans.
Even with the best plans, though, pets can get lost in the chaos of a natural disaster. Animal rescue organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals see an uptick in lost animals after storms because some pets get scared and run away.
Others hide in places where their owners can’t find or reach them and, in the confusion of an evacuation, get left behind. Still other families evacuate without their pets, either because they haven’t made arrangements to take their pets or they don’t think they can.
“We strongly urge families not to evacuate without their pets. If it’s too dangerous for you, it’s too dangerous for your pet,” says Tim Rickey, Vice-President of Field Investigations and Response at the ASPCA.
An owner’s first and best defense against losing a pet is to have the animal microchipped and registered. The cost of a microchip is around $50, and low-cost clinics can often help with the expense. Any veterinarian can inject the rice grain–sized microchip under the pet’s skin at an appointment.
Owners register the pet with the company makes the microchip, and there’s also a “universal” database that will search all of the different chip companies. Just provide contact information for their pet in the chip’s database, and then keep that information current.
“All too often, people change phone numbers or they move, but they don’t remember to update their pet’s information,” Rickey says.
Other tactics Rickey recommends depend on an owner’s knowledge of their pet. Does Fido or Fluffy tend to make a run for it when they get scared? It might be time to invest in an extra-sturdy leash and collar, and keep an extra-close watch. If your pet prefers hiding, create a safe retreat for them that’s also easily accessible for you, in case everyone needs to make a quick getaway.
Although animal behaviorists have traditionally discouraged providing extra comfort to a scared animal to avoid reinforcing attention-seeking behavior, storms and other extreme situations are no time to hold back. Treats, toys, and lots of snuggles with a human family can help reduce everyone’s stress level.
If you do become separated from your pet, it’s important to be aggressive in your search and keep looking for them. Animal rescues are often overwhelmed after a disaster, and Rickey recommends regular follow-up phone calls. Owners can upload their pet’s photo and medical information to the ASPCA mobile app to help expedite the process.
Expand your search radius to include nearby towns and cities, and even areas around the country that took in lost and stray animals from the disaster. Owners have been reunited with their pets months, even years, after the animal first went missing. Animals are remarkably adaptable, and although they are generally healthier and better off with human help, they can also survive on their own for long periods of time.