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Make a plan for evacuating your pets before disaster

When Ken Foster learned that Hurricane Katrina was fast approaching his New Orleans home in 2005, he immediately grabbed his three dogs, a bottle of wine, an assortment of cheese, and headed for a safe haven.

"I thought I was driving to a friend's house, spending the night and then going home," recalls Foster, author of "The Dogs Who Found Me," a book about rescuing abandoned animals.

pet evacuation coverageBut Foster badly underestimated the wrath of Mother Nature. Because of the hurricane's widespread devastation, Foster and his pets were forced to stay with his friend for much longer than he had anticipated. He says he's better prepared to evacuate his pets if disaster strikes again.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says leaving pets behind should be a last resort. Elizabeth Sprang, assistant director of the Southern Animal Foundation in New Orleans, agrees.

"Lots of dogs drowned because people had left them chained in the backyard [when Hurricane Katrina hit]," Sprang says. "All that was left were skeletons and chains. It was tragic."

Fortunately, there are steps pet owners can take to prepare for a natural disaster.

  • Create a pet-friendly evacuation plan. "Not all hotels or motels accept pets," warns Dr. Carol McConnell, vice president and chief veterinary medical officer for Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI). "You need to think about whether you have friends you can stay with, whether you need to research hotels that accept pets, or look into boarding kennels." By thinking things through, McConnell says you can avoid having to scramble for a place to stay.
  • Make an emergency kit. Items should include seven days' worth of water and food stored with a can opener in a waterproof container; toys and bedding; sturdy leashes or carriers; and first-aid supplies. Sprang says make sure you have pet medical records and at least a month's supply of medication.
  • Provide proof of identity. Because many pets lose collars or ID tags during emergencies, McConnell says it's critical to make sure your pet is microchipped. But that's not all. Dogs and cats tend to get skittish during emergencies so "always have photos of your pet," she adds.  
  • Understand your home insurance policy. If you have homeowners insurance, don't assume that temporary lodgings for your pet will be covered if you are forced to evacuate your dwelling. Some policies cover this as an additional living expense for those who are temporarily displaced, explains Candysse Miller, executive director of the Insurance Information Network of California. "There are companies that will pay reasonable boarding expenses of pet," she says. Because coverage varies from company to company, McConnell advises you to read your home policy carefully.

Pet owners have an ethical duty to make sure their pets are cared for during disasters, says Sprang. "If you're going to take on the responsibility of a pet, you can't leave them behind -- it's like leaving your child behind."


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