Since Hurricane Katrina, displaced pets and their families have captured the attention of animal lovers everywhere. Some of the most heart-wrenching stories are of people separated from their four-legged family members. Indeed, public outrage over the poor pet evacuation response during Katrina led Congress to enact the Pet Evacuation Transportation Standards (PETS) Act of 2006, which mandates local and state governments include pets in emergency evacuation plans.
During Hurricane Florence last month, Penn Vet’s Dr. Sue McDonnell, Founding Head of the Equine Behavior Program at New Bolton Center, and Dr. Carlo Siracusa, Clinical Assistant Professor, Behavior Medicine at Ryan Hospital, talked to Knowledge@Wharton SiriusXM Business Radio about how animals respond to weather emergencies and what owners, caretakers, and concerned citizens can do to keep them safe.
This special edition of Penn Vet Extra is adapted from their conversation.
How do animals react to storms and cope in violent weather?
McDonnell: Horses living outside have natural tendency to use the landscape to their advantage for shelter. It’s their survival instinct. They huddle together in groups and share the burden of the storm — the stout or sturdier animals stay on the perimeter and protect the younger, more fragile animals. And when flooding occurs, horses naturally seek high places.
We saw this instinct during the recent wildfires in California. When the fire came through, trainers at a center with hundreds of horses decided the only way to save the Thoroughbreds was to turn them free. Most of the horses survived. They ran into the forest and negotiated through the fire to safe areas. Many were found with burns, but if they had stayed at the center they would have died.
When horses are confined in domestic situations, they can’t always use their natural tendencies. That's when they will get very anxious.
Siracusa: Dogs and cats naturally react to bad weather. In storms, even without flooding or evacuation, pets tend to get upset.
Dogs typically have a proactive coping strategy. Because they’re social animals, some dogs will stay close to people for comfort. They might also scratch at the door or bark at the window. Some dogs will try to hide.
Cats react to weather as well, although they tend to have a more passive coping reaction. They’ll find a hiding place, like under a bed, and not come out.
A worry with animals is sensitization. After experiencing a very violent storm, the animal might then overreact with excessive fear in future bad weather. Some animals become so sensitized that even a gray day will be enough to send them into panic mode.
When facing disaster, natural or otherwise, what should owners and caretakers do?
Siracusa: Plan! Everyone should have an emergency plan that considers a pet’s personality. No one knows how a dog reacts to weather or fear better than its owner.
Many dogs do much better if they can stay close to owners. People often think that paying attention to fearful dogs will reinforce their fear and make things worse. This isn’t true. Fear is an emotion not a voluntary behavior. So, if you know that your dog does better being in the same place and in physical contact with you, it's okay.
Some dogs do better confined. I don’t recommend crates in cases like these — a panicked dog might try to escape from the crate and injure herself — but if you have a space in the house where the dog likes to stay and is okay being confined, that’s probably the best place.
Also know where handling devices are — leashes, collars — and have everything easily accessible. For example, your dog should be on a lead every time you open a door to the outside so it doesn’t escape.
If it’s an option, think about sending fearful dogs away to a place where the weather won’t be intense. And make sure that you also arrange for travel. Some dogs don’t travel well, and scared dogs won’t make things easy.
Whatever your plan, discuss options for anti-anxiety medication with your veterinarian.
McDonnell: As we often see with these storms, the forecast changes from morning to afternoon. It becomes a judgment call as to what's more stressful for horses, to stay and ride it out or move the animals. Nevertheless, have the logistics for a worse-case-scenario worked out ahead of time.
I often run into folks who assume that indoor settings are better for horses. But many horses, especially if they're not used to being inside, do better outside in a storm, unless they're in a very confined area where they can't move about. Putting horses in a stall may enhance the animals’ safety in some cases. But if they're not used to inside, horses might panic when confined and are unable to express their natural safety seeking behaviors.
I echo what Carlo said about the owners knowing how their animals react. People who have managed horses for a long time will know each individual horse and where the horse is most comfortable.
When the plan is to re-home, what do you recommend?
Siracusa: There are two ways people might re-home: putting animals in a facility for a short term, or surrendering them to a shelter and not returning.
If you want to permanently re-home the animal and take it to a shelter, the shelter’s foster network becomes very important. Bigger organizations have big networks, which increases the chances the animal will be placed in a foster or permanent home. Smaller shelters with small networks can get overwhelmed with animals, and the chances of euthanasia increase.
Whether you’re leaving the animal for the short-term or for good, do your research about the facility – know the space and understand how it deals with stressed animals.
McDonnell: Moving horses is obviously more complicated because of their size. Many people with horses have a trailer or a way to transport a horse. And the horse community comes together during situations like this to share and help facilitate transport for people who don’t have trailers.
During these high-profile weather events, the networks for caring for animals have gotten stronger and more sophisticated in responding to relocation and fostering. For example, 4-H clubs and extension programs have been actively involved in helping displaced people and their animals.
Is there anything pet owners and animal lovers not directly impacted by the storm can do?
Siracusa: Yes! People nowhere near the storm can tap in to the fostering network. Even those of us living far away can volunteer to take a pet — foster or adopt — from shelters with limited capacity that need space for more animals. Some organizations might be even able to organize the shipment of the animal to another city. There’s a large rescue community and it’s getting more adept at moving animals out of harm’s way and around the country.
McDonnell: Social media is a great way to reach out to people and offer safe space for horses. People really used it during Florence and it’s a way anyone can extend support and see what people in the storm path need.