Information for this article has been compiled from various online resources, all listed at the end, but also supplemented by local vets. In particular, the response from Dr. Amy Walker of Cotner Pet Care also supported the main points in the Prepare section. Thanks to everyone who responded to my messages!
Not originally being from Nebraska, I remember how panicked and unprepared I felt the first time I heard a tornado siren. Since that time, I’ve learned to check the weather radar, grab pets, and head to the basement. Yet I have to admit that I’m still relatively naïve about how to protect pets during natural disasters.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), tornadoes have occurred in every state. They can drop down any time of day, and any day of the year. Their wind speeds can exceed 250 mph with damage paths wider than a mile. However, even with today’s advanced radar NOAA says the average lead-time for tornado warnings is only 13 minutes.
Given how little time this is, we owe it to our pets to know what to do before, during, and after a tornado. Acting on the following knowledge just might save our pets’ lives.
Whether you have a dog, cat, exotic, or another pet like a bird, the tips for emergency-preparedness seem to be similar. Thus, I’ll start with these, but then note if the procedures would differ for a particular type of animal.
“Tornado season can be stressful for pets and owners alike. Having a plan in place before disaster strikes is the best way to help everyone stay safe during storms. Always have a designated tornado shelter within your home. This should be either in your basement or in a room that does not have any windows. Having cat carriers, kennels, and leashes in one designated spot will help you stay organized if you have to gather your pets quickly to get to shelter. If you have small dog or cats, keeping them in their carriers or kennels will help keep them safe and secure. You can cover their kennels with a blanket to help debris from getting in. It is also always a good idea to have your pets microchipped. This is a good safety precaution at all times, but especially during storm season, when there is a higher possibility of your pet running away due to being scared.”
–WACHAL PET HEALTH CENTER
The consensus is that all pets should have identification.
Harness & Tag: Temporary identification for dogs and cats would include a collar and/or harness with a tag. Guinea pigs can also wear harnesses and so conceivably could wear identifying tags, but mine never had any because they were always in their cage or with me.
Microchip: Permanent identification would include microchipping pets. Microchips are becoming more for dogs and cats and even birds. In contrast, for guinea pigs and other small animals the opinion mostly seemed to be against it. While these animals can get lost or exposed to storms too, most people wondered whether anyone would check for a microchip on hand-sized pets or whether these pets could survive long enough outside to be checked. Microchipping would also be more painful for smaller animals. Whatever you decide, for microchipping to have any value you must register the chip in a national registry database and keep your information current.
Tattoo: Another means of permanent identification that I hadn’t considered before is that of tattoos. There is even a national tattoo registry. Dogs and cats can be marked with an identifying tattoo similar to a social security number. Dogs registered with American or Canadian Kennel Club are often tattooed in the ear or flank and identified with a breeder number. With cats, the tattoo might be the last digits of their Cat Fanciers Association (CFA) registration number. Be aware, however, that there are regulations for the placement of the tattoo.
Photos: Finally, another good idea is to carry current photos of your pets with you. Also, leave copies with your local veterinarian and give copies to family outside of your immediate area. These pictures can prove ownership and can be placed on lost pet posters. You should even keep a set in your evacuation kit for quick identification. Be sure to note any special care requirements, including medical conditions and medications.
Every article I consulted online also recommended having an emergency kit ready, in case you have to evacuate your home and to update it on an annual basis. Some basics include:
- Up to a week’s worth supply of food and water for all pets, along with bowls and plates and spoons, and a non-electric can opener.
- Sanitation items such as litter box, diapers, potty training pads, and disposal equipment.
- A first-aid kit, any medication for pets, and all medical records. You should also compile a list of emergency vets, because you might not be the only one looking for pet care after a disaster. In addition, you should ensure pets are current on vaccinations, because pet-friendly shelters will require this.
“In case of a disaster you can get a pet disaster kit ready, there are lists on line of what to pack. Basically things to provide for basic needs, water, some food, blankets, basic first aid supplies etc… If you are expecting bad weather get the kennel out where you can get to it quick, have the dogs leash readily available. Move small pets to a travel cage and take it with you to the basement or wherever you will be “hiding” out.”
–VINTAGE HEIGHTS VETERINARY HOSPITAL
Food: Dry food should be stored in a sealed, waterproof container, ideally in the original package. Canned food will keep for six months of longer if stored in a cool place. If your pet requires special food, keep a list of types of food and local suppliers with your emergency information.
Litter: Keep a supply of litter in a waterproof bag, because flooding could be an issue. Also keep handy a litter scooper and plastic bags for sanitary waste disposal. Finally, keep a supply of newspapers, which can be shredded into strips and serve as a substitute litter box filler.
As inconvenient as it sounds, you should practice getting the entire family (including pets) to your designated tornado-safe area during calm weather. You can assign the responsibility of each pet to a different family member. Also, don’t forget to bring treats and toys. Make it fun for everyone!
All of this preparation will do you no good if you can’t find your pet when the time comes to head to your shelter or evacuate your house, and often pets will go into hiding when they sense a storm is coming. Therefore, it is worth the effort to train your dog to head to your shelter or come to you on command. Once your dog responds well to your commands, add distractions; you need your dog to obey even with a storm raging outside. Learn how to safely secure your cat. Make sure everyone in the family is able to remove the pet bird from his cage and place him into a carrier. You might keep a bird net near the cage for extra insurance. Know all your pets’ secret places and how to quickly gather them.
One article emphasized that although having all these preparations constitute a good safety plan, when all was said and done what really mattered was having a safe place for pets to stay after the storm has passed.
Official evacuation shelters do not allow pets. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), concerns for people with medical or psychological reasons who need to distance themselves from animals, along with food hygiene and other health concerns, are the reasons why animals are not allowed into human shelters.
For this reason, and because you might not be home when a tornado siren sounds, you should make arrangements ahead of time for where your pets could stay. Make a list of pet-friendly hotels, boarding facilities, veterinary clinics, and emergency shelters.
The most often recommended option seemed to be having a relative or friend ready to help. Be sure that this individual has a key to your home, along with the name of your veterinarian, and emergency contact information. Post relevant information in your home too, perhaps on the door of the cabinet where you store pet supplies. Also, give your veterinarian the name of your contact person, and authorize that person to consent to emergency treatment for your pets.
When you hear the tornado siren, you should fetch your pets and transport them with you to the safest place in your house. This might be a basement or it might be the smallest, innermost room on the lowest floor of your home. For further information regarding where to seek shelter during a tornado, read the tips at Storm Predication Center.
Provide your pets with the same cover as you. Bring them indoors well in advance of the storm where, if they are frightened, you can reassure and calm them. NEVER leave your pets outside during a storm. Definitely do not leave them chained or otherwise confined outside so that they cannot escape danger.
Once inside, put all pets in carriers or cages and bring them to your pre-selected shelter. Each pet should have its own carrier, and all crates should be labeled. Articles by people who had actually experienced a tornado noted that even when they were able to find temporary quarters for their pets, the biggest dilemma was finding cages. Leashes and collars should also be on hand for your dogs.
The best carrier for dogs, cats, birds, and small animals is the lightweight, hard plastic “airline” approved carrier. These are crush resistant and will help prevent falling debris from injuring your pets. They’re also easy to carry long distances in case your need to leave on foot.
Each carrier should be outfitted with a towel or carrier pad, water and food dish, and a small litter box tucked in the back. An aluminum foil cake pan or small plastic storage box works well for the latter.
Keep carriers away from walls and place blankets over them to protect your pet from falling debris, but also remember to allow for air flow. One article recommended that if your safe room has a clothes dryer in it: unplug the dryer (very important!), put small pet carriers into it, and leave the door open (also important!). The dryer, being a double-walled metal appliance, offers extra layers of protection.
Cats: One cat website made a note about being careful when taking a cat out of a carrier. It should be done in a confined space with as little distraction and noise as possible. My personal suggestion is, if you can train your cat beforehand to accept a harness and leash, put the harness on at the earliest safe opportunity and attach the leash if you need to take your cat out of its carrier.
Birds: One bird website advised that birds should be kept inside their carriers until the tornado has passed. Under no circumstances should you allow your bird to ride on your shoulder. Keep a “storm” cage in your safe area in case you have to stay there for an extended length of time, so your bird does not need to stay in a carrier for the whole time.
Just because the storm has passed doesn’t mean the danger is over. Your home may be a very different place after a tornado, which can be very distressing for your pets. For their comfort and safety, follow these guidelines.
“Have vaccines, flea, and heartworm prevention up to date. While you may have an indoor only cat or your dog may hardly ever hit the ground, in the event of a tornado your pet may suddenly find themselves out in world. There are several very contagious and deadly disease your pet can get. Many are easily preventable.”
Dr. Amy Walton, COTNER PET CARE
Although I have already mentioned it, having emergency supplies on hand bears repeating here. Even if a tornado doesn’t strike your home directly, you may still experience power, water, and other disruptions. Maintain at least one week’s supply of food, water, and medication for each pet.
Be aware that pet behavior may change after a natural disaster. Be patient and help your pets get back into their normal routines as soon as possible. However, also be prepared for behavior problems that may result. Change of eating, drinking, or sleeping patterns could indicate stress. If your pet displays unusual behavior for more than a few days, be safe and see a vet.
In the first few hours after a tornado, don’t allow your pets to roam free. Familiar scents and landmarks might be gone and your pet will probably become disoriented and could become lost.
While you access the damage, keep dogs on leashes and cats in carriers. Power lines could be down and dangerous objects might be littered about everywhere. So the first step is to scout out a small area where you can safely exercise your pet on a leash. When doing so, keep watch for sharp objects that could cut or puncture your pet’s foot. Also, shine a flashlight on the ground to make it easier to see glass and metal.
If the worst happens and your pet becomes separated from you, know where to search for lost animals. This is when you’ll appreciate that you pet has identification and that you took time to take photos. Strays are usually taken to your animal control agency or humane society, so these are the first places to check. Here in Lincoln, you might also contact Lost Pets of Lancaster County.
Nobody thinks the worst can happen to them. Fortunately, few people have their homes destroyed by a tornado, but with a little planning ahead you give your pets the best chance of survival if the worst does happen. All of us at Lincoln Animal Ambassadors wish you a safe storm season.