Pets and Companion Animals: When You Can’t Evacuate All of Them

Author: Eston Spain, Emergency Planning Associate, IEM

There is much discussion about pet or companion animal limits. Some states and local jurisdictions have set limits on the number of animals that a person can legally own.  The general consensus is that laws of this nature were enacted to prevent hoarding, enabling “puppy mills,” and other sorts of nuisance complaints where pets and companion animals are involved. While I believe that a responsible pet owner loves and care for their animals and abides by local laws, spays and neuters, and sees to the health and well being of their pets because their animals are considered part of their family, there are others who do not consider an animal’s interest when it comes time to evacuate.

The one element that is central to any argument for or against companion animal limits is the owner.  And one of the issues that I believe must be considered, regardless of how many pets or companion animals a person may have, is can all these animals be safely evacuated if a natural or man-made hazard or disaster occurs that forces an evacuation. Can the pet owner safely evacuate one companion animal; provide enough food, water, pet carrier, additional supplies, such as litter, meds, bedding, etc.? The number of companion animals the owner may have to evacuate compounds the requirements. In New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, many pets were simply left behind to fend for themselves. The results were devastating and heart-breaking. In many jurisdictions that have an evacuation annex as part of their Emergency Operations Plan (EOP), there are sections that cover pet evacuations and it most often begins with, “If you must leave your animal behind….” But is it fair to leave a family member behind during something like a hurricane?  Or wildfire?

To many this is unconscionable. This is also why I believe that the number of companion animals that one may have per household should be based on the ability of the owner to safely evacuate the animals in the event of wildfires, hurricanes, and other natural hazards and disasters. This sort of judgment call must be made with reasonable foresightedness and a good deal of common sense. For instance, if an evacuation is announced, due to an impending threat, such as a wildfire or hurricane, the onus is on the pet/companion animal’s owner to safely evacuate their animals from harm’s way. There are two obvious issues involving evacuation that animal owners must consider:

  • Mass evacuation care/shelter facilities, as a rule, will not allow pets or companion animals, only service animals, such as seeing-eye dogs, etc.
  • If evacuating to hotels, these businesses usually have pet limitations and usually only allow at the most one or two dogs. Cats are a different story and they have to be in pet carriers – dogs should be in pet carriers, too.

And then there are those who may have access and functional needs who will have difficulties of their own during an evacuation. Compound that with the number of pets or companion animals the owner may have and it can become overwhelming, and put an excessive burden on the evacuation resources. I’m not saying that anyone shouldn’t have more than one dog or cat, but if using emergency evacuation, public transportation resources, such as buses, trains, paratransit, etc. chances are, if they allow pets, even in pet carriers, may have limitations on the number of pets/companion animals allowed on the vehicles and most certainly there may be animal size limitations.

Restricting the number of pets/companion animals a person can have per household should not be taken lightly. Being able to evacuate the animal safely is part of its care, especially during an emergency. Natural and man-made hazards and disasters happen, and if a household must evacuate then the animal owner has a responsibility to evacuate their animals safely. If that household lacks the means or capability to evacuate any and all of their animals then that household should seriously consider how many animals they are willing to lose. After all, you wouldn’t leave a member of your family behind in an emergency, would you?

For more information on pet evacuation see the Preparedness Fast Facts: Pet Safety, by the American Red Cross, or contact your local office of emergency preparedness and animal shelter. Also, talk with your vet and other pet owners. As is often mentioned for those who live in hurricane hazard prone parts of the country, Get a Plan!  You should have one for your pets, too