Emergency Management: Pets
KeywordsPets and disasters Companion animals Evacuation Sheltering
The issue of emergency management and pets includes policies and research on how ownership of companion animals influences decisions in the context of disasters, including sheltering, evacuation, and re-entry considerations.
Pet ownership affects the ways people react to and respond to disasters. These reactions include refusals to evacuate, early re-entry into closed areas to check on or retrieve pets, and psychological factors such as stress or trauma from the loss of a pet. Approximately 68% of Americans are pet owners (American Pet Products Association 2018), and therefore, the ways that pet ownership impacts evacuation and sheltering decisions during disasters remains a growing concern for emergency managers. Factors that influence the response of pet owners to disasters include attachment and commitment levels to pets, lack of proper evacuation plans, lack of available resources for transport and housing, and risk perception (Heath et al. 2001; Heath and Linnabary 2015). There are also complex issues related to the ways in which interest groups engage in decision-making to move and manage stray animals, wildlife, livestock, zoo, and research animals (Irvine 2009).
Pets are often considered a beloved part of families, and this is reflected not only in the passage of the PETS Act, but also in what is described as the sociozoologic scale (Arluke and Sanders 1996). This refers to the social categorization of some species as more or less deserving of attention and protection. Animals considered as pets have more value to humans, because there is often an emotional attachment and affection for the animal. With numerous images of pets left behind after Katrina, this bolstered support for the inclusion of animals in emergency management policies. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the issue of companion animals and disasters came to the forefront of public attention. This attention was a catalyst for the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act (2006). Approximately 200,000 pets were abandoned or left behind during Hurricane Katrina, with just 5% of them ever reunited with owners (Lowe et al. 2009). The PETS Act requires that states include companion animals in disaster response plans in order to receive federal funding. Despite this, pet owners maintain primary responsibility for including their animals in household emergency plans. Additionally, shelters are not required to accept pets. The goal of this legislation was to provide additional resources to encourage evacuation compliance.
Evacuation and Sheltering
Households with pets are less likely to evacuate (Day 2017; Heath et al. 2001). Pets are often considered a part of the family, and many will refuse to leave if they cannot bring companion animals along with them (Farmer et al. 2017; Leonard and Scammon 2007). In one study, respondents who owned pets were 52% more likely to choose to not evacuate (Petrolia and Bhattacharjee 2010). Weaker human-animal bonds have been associated with leaving pets behind, so the less attached one is to their pet the less likely it is they will evacuate their pets (Heath et al. 2001). Additionally, regular vet visits are associated with stronger attachment to companion animals. These pet owners are also more likely to include pets in disaster plans, suggesting that failure to evacuate with pets means there is a weaker bond and/or lower standard of care (Heath et al. 2001). One study found that low-income residents were more likely to leave animals behind during disaster events (Hesterberg et al. 2012), suggesting that access to resources is linked with ability to bring animals to the sheltering destination. Power structures and policies may also play a role in facilitating the evacuees’ ability to bring their animals during an evacuation. For example, stories emerged after Hurricane Katrina that described owners who were forced to evacuate without their pets by first responders (Irvine 2009). Therefore, pet attachment and bonding are not the only factors in predicting the success of evacuation compliance.
Residents also might refuse to evacuate because they do not know where to take their pets, local shelters might not accept pets, or they cannot find information on pet-friendly shelters. Rumoring surrounding pets and proper evacuation protocols were evident during Hurricane Harvey and Irma (Federal Emergency Management Agency 2017). If leaving pets behind is not an option, residents will often stay behind with them if they cannot make other accommodations for animals. Pet owners who do evacuate are less likely to stay in a motel, hotel, or emergency shelter because those places lack pet accommodations or do not accept pets (Whitehead et al. 2000). A separate issue is that if residents evacuate quickly and leave pets behind, there is a possibility they will attempt to return early for their pets, which puts them in danger (Heath et al. 2001). This is more likely for a quick-onset disaster, where supplies are not readily prepared or available, and residents must leave immediately and do not have time to retrieve their pets.
Social Media and Reunification
There are also unexpected scenarios that might happen, including a pet becoming lost or running away during the evacuation or sheltering process, and they are separated from their owner. Reunification plans can become problematic if pets are not microchipped or do not have on identification tags. In the aftermath of recent hurricanes (e.g., Hurricanes Matthew, Harvey, and Irma), social media groups have been created with the aim of reuniting lost pets with owners (DeYoung and Farmer 2018). These groups have also publicized information about pet-friendly shelters, where individuals can go to volunteer help, and any animals that are in distress or need to be rescued.
Logistics and Planning
Other concerns have emerged about logistics of evacuating with companion animals (Farmer et al. 2017). Many supplies are needed for evacuating with pets, such as food, bowls, leashes, and carriers, and making sure there is room to bring pets. This can become a hassle for residents because traveling with pets is not an easy task. Additionally, they might be concerned about where to find pet friendly shelters or hotels. Those who do bring pets along might have to travel long distances to find accommodating hotels. Additionally, this can bring added stress for the animals themselves, as they are in unfamiliar locations and also dealing with the trauma of evacuation during a disaster. This can lead to some behavior changes in pets and ultimately create additional stressors or problems for their owners (DeYoung and Farmer 2018).
Emergency preparedness should continue to be integrated with pet ownership. This includes helping individual households make emergency plans that include pets, widely disseminating information about pet friendly shelters, and state and local emergency managers effectively giving information to the public (Farmer et al. 2017). Companion animals are vulnerable during disasters because of their dependence on people (Bankoff 2014). Owning pets also increases risk for humans, since pet ownership has been linked to refusal to evacuate (Whitehead et al. 2000). Policies that continue to encourage emergency plans that include pets and state level planning for pet friendly shelters would ultimately increase evacuation compliance. Ultimately, the ownership of companion animals is connected to pre- and postdisaster decision-making processes.
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