When disaster strikes—whether it’s a hurricane, flood, or raging wildfire—your first instinct is to get yourself and your loved ones to safety. For the estimated 85 million American families with pets, those loved ones include dogs, cats, and other animal companions. But what if rescuers make you leave your pets behind, or emergency shelters won’t let in animals? Under federal law, state and local emergency preparedness plans are supposed to consider the needs of people with pets or service animals. But the plans—and resources for pet owners—vary from state to state.
Government Help for Evacuating With Pets
The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (“PETS”) Act of 2006 was passed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when most rescuers wouldn’t take animals—leaving over 100,000 pets stranded (not to mention the people who died because they wouldn’t evacuate without their animal companions). In addition to the law’s emergency planning requirements, the PETS Act authorizes federal financial assistance for state and local projects like pet-friendly emergency shelters (42 U.S.C. § 5196-5196d). More than 30 states now have laws or emergency plans with provisions for pets and service animals. (See this map for details.) As Texas flood victims learned in 2017, the result is that more rescuers let people bring their pets, and some government-run shelters accept animals. Louisiana even has special mobile pet shelters to help with evacuations.
Still, it can be a challenge to evacuate with an animal, especially if you aren’t leaving in your own car or you have to go to a shelter. Not all communities have shelters that can accommodate pets, and most Red Cross shelters don’t accept them (except service animals for people with disabilities, which are allowed in all public accommodations.) And despite persistent rumors to the contrary, federal law doesn't require hotels to accept pets during an emergency. So wherever you live, you want to do everything you can to protect your pets.
As extreme weather becomes more common in a warming planet, it’s more important than ever to be prepared for natural disasters. That preparation should include your animal companion. Emergency planners and animal advocates suggest several steps.
Crate and Kit
Make sure you have a sturdy crate or carrier that’s the right size for your pet. When public transportation and shelters do allow pets, they generally require carriers. Even if you’re evacuating in a car, you never know where you’ll end up.
Put together a pet disaster kit, including:
- the carrier and a strong leash
- food and water for several days, along with collapsible bowls
- kitty litter and a pan for cats
- your pet’s medical history (especially vaccinations) and any medications
- garbage bags, and
- a blanket.
Have your pet microchipped if possible, so that you can be reunited more easily if you get separated. At the very least, carry a laminated photo of you with your pet. And of course, your dog or cat should be licensed and wearing an ID tag with your contact information.
Arrange for a friend or neighbor to take care of your animal in case you aren’t home when authorities order an evacuation.
Gather information about where you’ll be able to take your animal in an emergency. Ask friends or family who live outside of your immediate area if you and your pets can stay with them. Create a list of pet-friendly hotels or boarding facilities (see resources below). Check your state or local emergency management services (such as this website for Louisiana) for information about pet shelters.
Once Disaster Hits
As soon as you know storms or fires are on the way, bring your pets inside. Animals often run away when they sense severe weather, and you don’t want to have to go out looking for them.
When it’s time to evacuate, bring your pets with you. If it’s not safe for you to stay, it’s not safe for your animals. Because many states make it a crime to abandon animals, you could be charged with animal cruelty—even a felony in some states—if you leave a dog or cat to fend for itself under dangerous conditions. In the wake of Hurricane Irma in 2017, Florida officials vowed to prosecute people who left their dogs tied to trees when they evacuated.
Questions for Your Lawyer
- I ignored evacuation orders until rescue personnel came and took me—but not my dog. Now I'm being charged with animal cruelty. Don't I have a defense?
- Can I sue kennel operators who abandoned my dog when a hurricane came their way?
- The Red Cross refused to let me in a shelter with my emotional support dog, even though I need her with me during stressful situations. I was separated from her, flipped out, and ended up in the hospital. Can I sue the Red Cross for my distress?