Pets in Disasters: Extra Challenges and Aid for Animals

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When disasters strike, people often take their pets with them if possible. However, cats might be skittish and even with the best intentions, pets can become lost, injured or even killed. Islands present unique challenges due to limited resources. Aid for animals is ultimately important as people often suffer psychological distress from losing their pets, and they may even refuse to evacuate if they cannot bring their pets.

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What happens to pets after a catastrophic fire? .

When disasters strike, people often evacuate with their pets, as long as it’s possible for them to quickly grab their dogs, cats or other kinds of companion animals. However, you may not have time to gather your animals during a quick-onset event like a wildfire, or your animals might be hiding.

This is especially true for cats, because they can be skittish. There are other complications, such as evacuation by boat – which makes it harder to bring animals along. When owners flee without a leash or carrier, their animals might bolt at any stopover or shelter.

In states like Hawaii, which have pet overpopulation, more animal sanctuaries need to be created to provide resources during and after disasters.

Unfortunately, companion animals can become injured or perish during fires. Many animals will also be lost and displaced. Owners will spend weeks, months or even years after a fire searching for their missing cats and dogs. It can be challenging to identify and match pets with their humans because burn injuries can change the animal’s appearance, they may not have a microchip, or the owners themselves may have died in the fire.

In disasters, people may suffer additional distress from losing their pets, or may even refuse to evacuate if their pets cannot come with them.

Like people, animals that survive fires may experience trauma and stress symptoms, such as regressing on housetraining or other issues for days and weeks after the fire. The pets may need quiet time and support to recover from their stress. They may also need to be treated for burn injuries or lung damage from inhaling smoke. Some animals may not survive their injuries.

What are the extra challenges on an island? .

Pet reunification is a long and tedious process, sometimes requiring years of searching for owners and their beloved animals.

Islands have limited space for the boarding and care of displaced animals. For example, during the 2018 lava flows on Hawaii’s Big Island, in which over 2,000 people evacuated, the logistics for people and animals presented unique challenges.

People who lose their housing for any reason may need to board their pets. Unfortunately, nearly all of Hawaii’s animal shelters are already at full capacity due to the state’s pet overpopulation, leaving little space available during emergencies. Smaller animal sanctuaries may take in animals temporarily, but they also have limited space and staffing. Because of these challenges, animal-foster networks become key during and after disasters. Truly stray animals – cats, dogs and other animals that belong in homes but live on the streets – can also be flown to other places for adoption.

Animals need not only physical but also psychological support after a disaster, as trauma due to the disaster can cause long-term stress.

But before that happens, it’s critical to first make every effort to reunite lost companion animals with their owners.

Is aid for animals worth it when people are suffering? .

Many people love their animals and see them as part of their family. In Hawaii, during the 2018 lava flows, I heard many people call their pets their "keiki" – the Hawaiian word for children. Losing pets is often devastating.

Improving animal welfare will ultimately also help people because of the bond between humans and animals. People experience psychological distress when their pets are killed, injured or lost. Additionally, if people cannot safely evacuate with their pets, they might refuse to leave during disasters.

Finding temporary housing for animals is yet another challenge brought about by disasters, especially for island states with scarce resources.

That’s why emergency shelters should allow people to stay with their pets if possible. Hotels or other providers should also consider temporarily waiving pet fee policies in evacuation zones when disasters strike.

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