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Helping Animals During a Disaster
Revised: April 06, 2021
Published: June 09, 2006

Dr. Laura Riggs, a volunteer with the Louisiana State Animal Response Team, trudged through water with a horse she rescued as floodwaters arose in and around Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2016. Photo by Renee Poche.

The most important thing you can do to help animals during a disaster is to be sure that you have prepared appropriate emergency kits for yourself, your human family, and the animals in your care. This should be done well in advance of an emergency incident.

Be sure to include medications, as well as vaccination records, food, water, bedding, leash, food and water bowls, plastic bags and gloves for waste, a first aid kit, and an appropriate cage or kennel for each animal. Don’t forget the kitty litter and a small litter pan.

Ask your veterinarian to implant a microchip in your pet for positive identification and register the chip number with one of the national organizations available for that purpose. You should also carry that microchip identification number in your wallet along with a picture of yourself with the pet; write the chip number on the back of the photo and slide that photo into a sleeve along with the pictures of your children or grandkids.

Carry proof of your residential address in your wallet so that you can get home if first level roadblocks are in force. Most of us will have that with our driver's license.

Evacuate humans and animals in a timely manner. Know what motels, friends, relatives, or pet-friendly shelters might be able to accommodate you and your pets; call as soon as possible to reserve a spot. Have a friend or relative in another area act as the information-clearing house for you in case disaster strikes local communications.

If you have horses but no trailer, realize that you will need to be willing to evacuate very early in order for friends to be able to trailer your horses for you.

Being personally prepared not only helps your own animals, this frees up disaster service workers who might otherwise be spending time and effort saving you and yours!

Once your own are safe, you may want to help neighbors and others if your own area is hit by a disaster. It is best to plan ahead for this as well. Most locales will be requiring disaster volunteers to have some prior training, proper disaster worker identification, and association with a response agency deployed to that disaster. There are simply too many safety issues when people without prior training or experience volunteer after the disaster has hit.

There are plenty of positions to be filled within disaster response agencies, so you will want to think about how your particular skills and interests might be useful. Such qualifications as professional degrees in counseling, accounting, medicine, or law are valuable assets. Prior experience in actual disaster response is also very helpful.

Your physical health may influence what positions are appropriate for you. If you have significant health problems, you may not be able to help at the front line where amenities are minimal and physical stresses often well beyond expectations.

However, there are plenty of ways to help behind the front lines: making phone calls, arranging for supplies, keeping track of donations, scheduling volunteers, or entering data onto the website.

Perhaps if you have a laptop, you could be stationed at the Red Cross Shelter to help people access websites in search of their displaced pets.

If you are an experienced groomer, you are ahead of the crowd in helping to decontaminate animals exposed to toxic floodwaters or oil spills.

If you are a trainer, you might want to offer help to animals that develop behavioral issues secondary to the traumatic disaster experience.

Consider volunteering now with your local animal shelter, and staying on to help with all the extra work during a disaster. Animal shelters all across the United States took in hurricane victims in 2005!

If you have skills in public speaking, you may find your calling as a public information officer, a community educator, or a funding director.

Massage therapists are greatly appreciated by humans and animals alike during an evacuation.

Perhaps your own home was not affected by the disaster. If that is the case, you may be able to offer foster care for animals displaced by the disaster while their families get resettled.

Not everyone who volunteers at the front line will be heroically sloshing through flood waters looking for stranded animals. There will always be a tremendous need for workers to clean the animal housing units, feed the animals, assist disaster victims looking for their displaced animals, schedule workers, and organize supplies. These are usually positions for those in robust health who are capable of bivouacking at the scene without amenities.

The best way to start is to volunteer with a local first responder group. For more information on this type of group, you can read through A First Responder’s Guide To Animal Care. If your area does not yet have a group, you may consider starting one yourself based on the guidelines found in this manual.

FEMA offers some excellent online classes in disaster response. Most response groups will require that you take at least IS100 and IS200 from this class list before getting further training and certification with their group.

If you cannot volunteer in person, perhaps you are interested in funding the work of  local or national organizations that help meet the needs of animals during disasters. You might also consider donating to a disaster response program at your state’s veterinary school, to the nonprofit Foundation of AVMA or your state’s own veterinary medical association, to your local Red Cross earmarked for co-shelters open to those wishing to keep their pets with them, or perhaps to the Salvation Army as they are often the ones to feed first responder groups as well as the disaster victims.

We all know that there will be more hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, and other disasters. How are YOU going to help?

Additional Resources

Saving the Whole Family, AVMF

Prepare your Pets for Disasters, U.S. government

Pet Disaster Preparedness, Red Cross

Pet Disaster Preparedness, Red Rover

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