(Photo Credit, Arizona Daily Star) - the house in the photo is my own.
As I write this the states of California and Oregon are aflame, and a hurricane is barreling down on the eastern US, people are literally fleeing their homes in the hundreds of thousands. In 2017, we were prepared to evacuate due to the Sawmill fire, which ultimately burned 47,000 acres, but thankfully avoided structures and no one was harmed. Three days after we brought our belongings back to our house, a fire broke out at the bottom of our mountain and driven by high winds and hot weather, it burned two homes, cut off our only road in and left my neighbors and I to watch helplessly at the bottom of the mountain as fire crews worked to save our homes.
In this week's podcast, Emily and I discussed how to best prepare for such emergencies, as well as how to travel safely with pets, and how to look for and ensure success for pet sitters in the event that you leave pets behind. That's a lot of stuff!
So we will cover it in three separate blog posts. Much of the information is redundant, so that was how we were able to tackle them all in one podcast, but I think it best to examine them separately here.
Here we will discuss evacuating with pets. Depending on where you live, evacuations may be part of your life. As discussed above, I had two fires within a week threatening my home, prior to that we had a fire come over the mountain from the south the weekend after Super Bowl Sunday and threaten several neighbor's homes. Thankfully winds and temperatures were low, and hotshot crews were able to gain control overnight, and the fire was stopped, and then died under a blanket of rare and lucky snow. Because of these events, I have a plan to evacuate all of the dogs, all of the geese, most of the chickens, the slower ducks, and all of the sheep. I have an alternate plan in the event that our one and only road gets cut off and I have to leave via an alternate route with an ATV.
People living in hurricane country ideally have a plan, as do folks living in fire prone areas (and areas near fire prone areas, as temperatures soar and fires grow hotter, faster and bigger). Many homes could be flooded by excess rain runoff from freak storms, or you could wake up and find high winds driving a neighbor's house fire onto your roof. Everyone should have a plan.
First. Know where you're going. If you live in hurricane country there are likely designated shelters. Know where they are, and have several plans how to get to the closest and the next closest. It does you no good to pack your pets into your car and drive into the danger you're trying to avoid. For large fires away is usually best. Depending on the size of the fire there may already be points set up. If you have family or friends nearby go there. Know what hotels in your area take pets.
Planning also means making sure all of your dogs are crate trained, have leashes and snug collars with ID (multiple collars or slip leads if they're prone to panic or escape), can be tied to objects, have solid recalls, and are microchipped. Cats need to be microchipped, have a collar with ID, and can ideally come when called and are crate trained.
You want one leash per dog, at minimum, and a crate to put your dog when you get where you're going. For cats that may see the crate and hide grab the cat first and put them into a pillow case and tie it closed until you can get to a crate, or a pillow case will also do in a pinch if you don't have a crate.
In any emergency where nerves are running high and people and pets are frightened I would try to always have two barriers between a pet and escape. So a crate and a leash on for a dog, double leashes and collars if not crated, and a harness and crate or pillow case and a crate for a cat. Discomfort is a small price to pay for a safe animal.
If you forgot to get your pet microchipped - or you have no tags on your collar - use a sharpie to write your phone number inside the pet's ear, on their belly, or elsewhere - again - two things should always separate your pet from getting lost - a collar with tags and a microchip, or a collar with tags and your number in sharpie. Don't make it hard for your pet to find their way home in the event they get loose. Most pet stores have biothane collars and you can easily write your number directly on the collar.
For horses and other stock, spray paint your number on their side. Also write it on halters and collars. You can also just spray a huge X or O in paint and put the word out that you're missing five goats with pink Xs on them, when someone finds them, they'll find their way back to you much faster than if you just say you have missing goats.
Have a go bag for your pets that contains necessary veterinary information including shot records, necessary medication, muzzles, collars, leashes, water, food, and dishes. You do not want to add to a stressful situation by not having food and supplies for your pets.
Some evacuation sites do not accept pets, so you will need a plan. If the weather is cool enough and your car is safe, you can leave your pets in the car if necessary (again this is not about perfection, it's about survival). Your veterinary hospital may have room, as may boarding kennels - so have all of that information with you and have necessary vaccines up to date.
Network with people! If you know you're going to have to evacuate, reach out to trusted friends and family who may be able to take in your pets or livestock. Fairgrounds usually open themselves up for horses and other hoof stock, but they may also have room for all of your crated dogs, cats, canaries, hamsters, pet goldfish and you in a sleeping bag on the floor of an unused stall.
If your pet is prone to panic, is incredibly fearful, or does not do well with changes in their environment, speak to your vet beforehand about event medications. These medications can help ease transport and calm panicked pets and prevent escape.
There are three goals when evacuating: Getting yourself to safety, getting your pets to safety, and keeping everyone safe. Sometimes we have to make decisions about the first goal that may mean that we have to forget parts of the second part. If a fire is roaring down on you and you have moments, not hours, and three of your cats spend most of their lives avoiding human capture, then sadly, take the animals you can save (and yourself!) and get out!
I know that if we have to evacuate and time is limited, several chickens and most of the ducks will not be able to be saved. I know this, and I have balanced that fact against the time that I could be using to ensure that the rest of my animals are safe, and have made a decision. If I die, we all die. So, I will not endanger any lives to save my incredibly fast and panic prone ducks. I can flood their pen, and hose down their structure and hope for the best, or place a sprinkler on them and hope for the best, but that's probably all I can do. It's a hard fact that moments matter.
So, if you have days (like a hurricane, or a large fire, or similar event), then, yes, get everyone to safety, because you have the time - place hard to capture animals in crates ahead of time, even if it means they spend a few days there. If you have hours, do what you can, but get out in time. If you have minutes, then that's where having a good recall will save lives! Pile everyone in the car and flee.
Thinking about these situations before they arise will save you time and panic in the future. Having everything you need packed and ready will keep you from scrambling. By having extra collars, leashes, a bit of food, some bottled water, and veterinary records (including microchip information) in one place means there will be no last minute mad scramble.
If you have no choice but to leave animals behind, make every effort to ensure their survival, and that they will return to you after things settle down. If I have to abandon my sheep, I figure that they're safer in their arena which has no combustibles and is low so the risk of smoke inhalation is low. If I had to abandon them I would leave a hose running in their pen for water and cooling mud, and place all of my hay in with them. For the ducks, I would also assume that their foliage free pen would be the safest place for them, and I would provide them with food, water, and a sprinkler left on.
Horses in wooden barns or on dry grass may b safer if set free, and cats in burning houses should probably have access to as many exits as possible so leaving doors and windows open may be beneficial. If flooding is the danger, ensure that animals have access to the upper parts of the house or property.
Every effort within reason and safety should be made to either evacuate animals to safety or provide them the best chance of survival. Planning ahead will provide both you and your animals the best chance of a seamless evacuation that saves as many lives as possible and keeps everyone safe until the danger has passed.