Animal experts who have been in the rescue trenches during prior hurricanes urge pet owners to follow a number of guidelines, especially now that Hurricane Sandy is moving into populated areas of the U.S. East Coast.
The statistics in the wake of hurricanes are startling. Evacuations from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 left some 1,000 deserted pets to be euthanized for lack of space to care for them. In 1999, more than 3 million pets and farm animals died as a result of Hurricane Floyd.
"It's essential that you heed local warnings and evacuate if necessary," Sara Varsa, director of operations for the Humane Society of the United State's Rescue and Response Team, told Discovery News. "If a situation is not safe for you, then it is not safe for your pets."
In 2000, the HSUS and FEMA signed a partnership agreement to encourage and assist people who want to safeguard their pets during a natural disaster. Since that time, it's become easier to find a shelter that will accept pets. But many still don't, so Varsa cautions that you must also consider boarding facilities, hotels that take in pets, homes of friends and relatives in safe areas, and other options.
If you can take your pet to a shelter, Varsa said, you should have a carrier or cage as well as a "to go bag to grab" containing an identification collar and rabies tag, detailed identification on all belongings, a leash (or harness for a cat), an ample supply of food, water and food bowls, any necessary medications, specific care instructions and newspapers or trash bags for clean-up.
If you are not forced to evacuate, but are still in the path of the hurricane, she said, "Hurricanes cause pressure changes that pets may detect. Cats and dogs may become disoriented and will likely be scared of any loud storm noises."
It's essential, she said, that cats be kept in a comfortable room with the "to go" bag and carrier nearby, while dogs "not be off leash at any time" during the storm.
Jennifer Scarlett, a veterinarian and co-president of the San Francisco SPCA, ran an emergency shelter in Hattiesburg, Miss., during Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath. At least 1500 cats and dogs were under her care at the shelter. Many arrived after "rescue runs," when volunteers and staff would hunt for abandoned or otherwise remaining pets in storm areas.
Scarlett said that when a cat or dog comes into a shelter, "We take pictures, wash the animal, decontaminate it, and then house it and wait for the owners to show up."
Identification can be a huge challenge, even if an owner goes to the right shelter to later reclaim a pet.
"We often have to take the photos at night, when the lighting is bad and the pets are scared and may not even resemble their usual selves," Scarlett said. "It's a real mess. Had owners microchipped their pets, they would've prevented so many problems and likely have been reunited with their dog or cat. Remember that collars can easily come off."
She urged owners to not leave pets alone at home during storms, even if ample water and food are provided.
"It is always better to take your pets with you," she said, adding that rescue workers are often later faced with animals suffering from starvation, dogs and cats that have been hit by cars after bolting, or pets that otherwise have been hurt or became ill.
Scarlett"s experience has also taught her a tip not usually seen on most disaster preparedness materials: Add a can of tuna fish, or other food for both humans and pets, to your "to go" bag.
She explained, "Tuna provides protein for dogs and cats, and you can eat it too."