Saving Our Pets When Disaster Strikes

When seconds count, do you have a plan for keeping your pets safe?

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It’s 3 a.m. and a raging forest fire is heading your way. Firefighters hammer your door and tell you to evacuate NOW! Do you have a plan for you, your family and your pets? Or are those precious moments filled with indecision, panic and chaos?

There are numerous situations that might cause the disruption of our daily lives. Unforeseen events like earthquakes, chemical spills, floods, serious illnesses or even changes in our housing situations can trigger the need for an immediate alternative plan.

There is an abundance of information available on emergency planning for us and our loved ones, but what about our fur kids? Aside from the elderly and the infirm, they are our most vulnerable family members.

“It’s every bit as important to have a plan for our pets as it is for ourselves,” says Dr. Gail Colbern, veterinarian and owner of GreenSprings Veterinary near Ashland. “We should always be ready to take whatever steps we can to save our animals. Planning ahead makes people a lot more efficient and a lot more resilient in dealing with emergencies.”

When it’s time to go

Have a handy go-bag that includes provisions for pets and a list of emergency contact numbers. Make sure everyone in the family knows the plan, the evacuation routes and family meet-up sites. At the first sign of impending disaster, Colbern says, move all your animals into the house or barn so they are available for evacuation. “You need to have a crate for each animal. Normally friendly animals may become aggressive during the stress of a disaster, so be cautious.”

For small animals, she says, you need to think about collars and leashes, medications, medical records, food and water. “You should have a couple of 5-gallon water containers because you will go through that faster than you think. Depending on the time of year, you might want to have warm jackets or sweaters for pets that don’t have heavy coats. You’ll want to take their beds and a first-aid kit with bandage material. Also include identification, vaccination records and documentation of ownership.”

In the case of large animals, says Colbern, you will need to prearrange for a trailer to use if you don’t have one of your own. And it’s a good idea to include neighbors in your pet and horse disaster plan as they can help with the animals if no one else is home.

“The biggest mistake I see people make is that they have more animals than they are equipped to care for in an emergency situation, and they haven’t considered how they will manage them,” she says. “Remember, without a plan, you are more likely to have to leave some or all of your animals behind.”

Give me shelter

“The Red Cross and other disaster response agencies have made huge progress in the past few years when it comes to pets,” Colbern says. “They require that pets must be in crates, but they do provide space for them.”

For livestock, you will need stalls or an enclosure to unload them from the trailers. Colbern says, “Fairgrounds are usually a good place. Jackson County is set up at the Expo park as an evacuation point. You can also talk to friends or other people out of the area who might agree to be a temporary emergency drop-off point.”

If these housing alternatives are not available, she suggests researching nearby boarding facilities or pet-friendly motels. “Contacting these businesses before evacuation may increase the likelihood of availability during a disaster. Be aware that boarding facilities may require current vaccination information, so have this available in your evacuation kit.”

Identifying and reclaiming animals

All animals should have some sort of permanent identification before the need to evacuate. The easiest form of identification is a collar and an ID tag with your phone number, says Kim Casey, program manager for Jackson County Animal Services in Phoenix. “This usually results in the quickest return of an animal that gets lost or separated from its owner. It’s also a universal symbol to people that that animal has an owner.”

Microchipping is a secondary, more permanent form of identification, Casey says, and all veterinary clinics and shelters scan animals for chips. She strongly urges owners to register their microchipped animals and to keep that information current. Otherwise, she says, they can waste a tremendous amount of time trying to identify the owner.

With large animals, she advises, “Have your name on the halter, write your name on their hind quarters in some way, or have registration papers or photos. Provide some way of being able to identify that that animal belongs to you.”

First responders

“In the case of wildfires, our field officers work with law enforcement as they’re evacuating folks,” explains Andrew Swanson, animal control enforcement supervisor with Jackson Co. Animal Services. “It can be very frightening for the animals with the emergency vehicles and so much going on. If folks aren’t home, we take custody of the animals and take them to the shelter for safekeeping. It’s very helpful to first responders when people have a sticker next to their front door that tells them how many pets are in the home. We try to leave a notice what we have done and where they can find them.”

Going home

When you can return home, Colbern says, inspect the area for potential dangers including sharp objects, wildlife seeking refuge, contaminated water, downed power lines or any hazards that may cause harm. Examine your animals closely for signs of illness or injury. Release horses and livestock only during the day into safe and enclosed areas and observe them closely. Release dogs and cats indoors only. Reintroduce food slowly, in small servings, for animals that have been without food for a prolonged time. Allow uninterrupted rest or sleep for all animals to recover from the trauma and stress.

“If people would put some thought into what they would need to do for their animals in the case of an emergency, it would sure save a lot of heartache,” Casey says. “Studies show that people are far more likely to put themselves at risk by not evacuating because they don’t want to leave their animals behind. They will often stay in a dangerous situation when they should be getting out. But if you have thought about what you will do for yourself and your animals in that situation, it makes you much more prepared to get them to safety.”

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More to Explore

Items to include in small animal evacuation kit

Courtesy of Gail Colbern, DVM, GreenSprings Veterinary, Ashland


  • Two-week supply of food (normal diet), how/when to feed, any allergies
  • Medications (list each animal separately with dose and frequency)
  • Two-week supply of water (plastic gallon jugs with secure lids)
  • Batteries, flashlight and radio
  • Cage/carrier (one for each animal, labeled with your contact information and identification of pet/microchip)
  • Can opener (manual)
  • Cat/wildlife gloves
  • Copies of veterinary records with vaccinations and proof of ownership
  • Emergency contact list
  • Familiar items to make pet feel comfortable (toy, treats, blanket)
  • First-aid kit (see online lists or contact your vet for suggestions)
  • Leash and collar (or harness)
  • Litter, litter pan and scoop (Two-week supply)
  • Maps of local area and alternate evacuation routes
  • Muzzles for both dogs and cats
  • Newspaper for bedding or litter
  • No-spill food and water dishes
  • Paper towels
  • Spoon for canned foods
  • Stakes and tie-outs
  • Trash bags (several sizes)

Additional Resources:

Jackson County Emergency Management: Pet and Livestock Preparedness


Josephine County Emergency Management


American Veterinary Medical Foundation: Disaster Relief: Saving the Whole Family


American Veterinary Medical Association: Disaster Preparedness


Department of Homeland Security,


Pet Rescue Stickers



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