Pack the Pet, We Gotta Go

In March or 2011, one of the largest earthquakes and tsunamis in history shocked everyone in Japan, as well as the world. Along with the disaster and misery came problems to those who lost their homes, those needing medical assistance, those panicking over missing family members, and those grieving at the loss of loved ones. One of these problems was the issue of what to do with the family pets.

I was fortunate that I was hundreds of miles away from the disaster site; and many of us volunteered to help with animal rescue (as well as other relief efforts). This experience taught me how to prepare an emergency kit for my own pets. The amazing thing was many of the materials were readily available and the actual kit was extremely inexpensive.

The first steps begin long before any disaster strikes, and are a must for all responsible pet owners. All pets need to be microchipped. During a disaster, the likelihood of becoming separated from your pet is extremely high; and microchipping is the best way of ensuring you will be reunited with your pet.

An additional suggestion is unless you breed you pet, you should have it neutered.  Remember that many pets are feral for several days or weeks before being rescued. Imagine the joy of being reunited with your pet after several months of separation (which is common in many disasters) and discovering you are not only getting your pet back, but also a litter of puppies or kittens. Furthermore, all pet owners should ensure their pets are up to date on their shots. Collars and vaccination tags are another way to trace pets and reunite them with their owners.

Another step is taking photos of your pets. Scan the photos, and a copy of the animal’s medical records into your computer, along with the microchip information. Email the information to yourself at a Yahoo or Google account so that you will have access to the information wherever there is a computer and internet access.  Putting the year the pet was born instead of the age allows use of the same photos for several years.

I print out a sheet with the pets’ photos and a brief description of their personality. This is especially important if the pet is hostile to strangers. I post this information inside, next to the front door. I do not recommend posting this on the outside of the door because it alerts everyone that no one is home. Putting it on the inside of the door isn’t good either, because often rescuers open the door and do not see what is on the other side of it. Putting it near the door on the inside wall is the best place. This way, any rescue workers entering the home know how many and what the pets look like. If I take my pets with me, I note that on the sheet of paper with their photos so that rescue workers will not spend time searching for the animals. Remember, rescue workers are trained to look for signs of any habitation within the home.

For the times when a person evacuates with a pet, here are suggestions for actually making the kit. First, here are a few basic guidelines. The kit is designed to last three to seven days at the most. By that time, your pet will have been taken to an animal shelter set up for the emergency. Trust the people running the shelter; they’re animal lovers too, and they will take good care of your pet. Second, you will have to change everything in the kit on a regular basis. One recommendation is to change the material in the kit when you change the batteries in your home smoke detectors, such as when switching from or to Daylight Savings Time in the spring and in the fall. Of course, you will have to replenish everything after using the kit. Nothing here is designed for long term use. Remember this is an emergency kit designed to last a limited amount of time. Stick to the basics, food and the toilet, and whatever health needs your pet has.

Everyone thinks of food and water first. However, what your pet will do before anything else is answer the call of nature. For dogs, this easy, just make sure you have plenty of plastic bags (and I mean lots and lots of plastic bags). For cats, this calls for a litter box. I got some large, flat-rate boxes from the post office. It took some effort, but I was able to fold them down to one simple rectangle. I tied the boxes together using a generous amount of string, which comes in handy later. When I used the boxes for a litter box, it was easy to unfold them. I added several medium-sized (13-gallon) garbage can liners. I had the actual kitty litter in two small coffee cans, which I sealed in a large plastic freezer bag. This kept the litter from spilling out. I also included lots of newspapers for two reasons. One was to put on the floor under the litter box in an effort to keep the area clean. Second, newspapers when crumpled up and then torn into small strips can be used as emergency kitty litter. When I needed to set up the litter box, I unfolded the boxes, lined them with plastic bags (a personal recommendation is to use at least two plastic bags) and tied everything in place with the string I used earlier for the boxes. If there was any string left over, I then had something for the cats to play with. By the way, don’t forget to include something to scoop out the litter box.

The next logical step is to make sure there is enough food for at least seven to ten days. Dry food works best since it is lighter and takes less space than canned food. Be sure to include bowls for food and water. Also include any medicine your pet needs. For medical needs, if possible, include a 30-day supply. If this is not possible, be sure to note the medical needs and medications your pet needs, and have this information readily available.

Water is heavy and bulky. I recommend putting in water as the last item; and then only as much that will comfortably fit into the kit. The good thing is animals can drink water from puddles and other sources people cannot. As long as the water is not contaminated, it’s okay. While pets like fresh water, this is not the time to be wasteful. Water is always in short supply immediately after a disaster.

Other items that need to be included in the kit are photos and a copy of the pet’s medical record. This will help rescue workers get your pet back to you after relief efforts are underway.  For dogs, include a leash. For cats, a leash doesn’t work. From personal experience, most cats will try, and eventually, escape from it; although there are some who will accept the situation and just lie there. Still, for cats, a pet carrier lined with newspaper or towels is best. Including a favorite toy is a good idea, especially if you are with your pet.  If the animal has a favorite blanket or bedding, bringing that along will help with your pet’s anxiety.

Another issue is your pet’s emotional health. Animals have emotions, which means they get frightened and nervous just like people do. It is not unusual for your pet’s appetite to wan. Pets may also become aggressive or hostile (biting and growling) because of fear. It is recommended that unless your pet seeks the attention of others, other people should leave it alone. As your pet gains more confidence in its security, it will regain its normal composure.

The key is to get everything (except the pet carrier) into one container, such as a five-gallon bucket or a good-size cardboard box, and have it ready. When disaster strikes, often there is not enough time to gather everything. Even if there is time, when stressed, owners do forget things. Disasters demand a great deal of everyone, so why not make it easier on yourself and your pet.