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Pet preparedness and mental health

Having an animal at our side during a crisis may help to develop disaster resilience and help to reduce the demand for post-disaster services, says Lyzi G Cota.

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Disasters come in different forms and studies show that people who have an animal by their side while experiencing a traumatic experience provides them with comfort. Image: Cienpies Design/123rf

Animals play an essential role in physical health and mental wellness; they lower stress by generating oxytocin and dopamine. This is why many people consider pets as part of their families and losing them can create a devastating psychological impact. It is therefore vital to learn how to prepare for evacuation when emergencies occur or disaster strikes, taking into account the needs and care that pets will require.

When preparing for an emergency kit, these are some of the standard items to include: First aid kit and medication; torch with spare batteries; radio; maps; cell phone with charger; extra set of house and car keys; emergency blanket; family and emergency contact information; personal documents; and extra cash.

However, cats and dogs share similar biological, emotional, social, cognitive and training needs and they should be considered when preparing for emergencies. To make the the evacuation experience less stressful for them while they go into new environments, include some essential items into your emergency kit or evacuation pack. These could include: Leash and collar with ID and harness; a copy of rabies and other vaccinations; recent photos of pet(s) with information about species, breed, sex and colour; microchip information and proof of ownership; pet First Aid book and kit; any necessary medication; non-spill food and water bowl; crate or kennel; waste bags, litter box and litter; disinfectant, newspaper and paper towels; familiar items such as toys, blankets and treats; grooming supplies; flea, tick and heartworm medicine; manual can opener (if required); water – remember to factor your pet’s water consumption into your emergency planning; and food to last three days.

According to Tim Aylen, writing for the Associated Press, most animal deaths occur within 24 to 48 hours of a disaster’s onset. And it has been widely reported that an estimated 44 per cent of people who stayed behind in Hurricane Katrina did so because of their pets – people are more likely to refuse evacuation during a disaster or emergency if they have to leave their pets behind. Globally, there are not enough emergency shelters where people and their pets can be housed together before, during or after a disaster.

On October 6, 2006, US President George W Bush signed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act 2006 into law. This amended the US Robert T Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act: "To ensure that state and local emergency preparedness operational plans address the needs of individuals with household pets and service animals following a major disaster or emergency."

The PETS Act authorises the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to: "Provide rescue, care, shelter, and essential needs for individuals with household pets and service animals and to the household pets and animals themselves following a major disaster or emergency."

For the US Department of Homeland Security and FEMA, the effectiveness of the PETS Act is gained by working with two other documents that support FEMA's efforts to ensure preparedness and response associated with companion animals. These are: The National Response Framework (NRF) document, which establishes a comprehensive, national, all-hazards approach to emergency response; and the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA), which: “Codifies and expands FEMA's regional office structure and strengthens its all-hazards operational framework and co-ordination capabilities."

Stress, fear, conflict or anxiety in pets can lead to physical, emotional and behavioural manifestations, even more so in a time of crisis. Instead of punishment, it is essential to understand the signs that pets may present, such as: Stiff body posture; shaking; excessive fatigue; crouched posture or cowering; freezing; excessive panting; fear and aggression; excessive drooling; and less play initiation or engagement.

It is recommended that the pet’s conduct be redirected with treats or hugs, while taking care not to reinforce anxious behaviour and avoiding the creation of positive reinforcement that could develop into a negative pattern.
The US Center for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) provides some recommendations:

  • Train your pets to be in their carriers and make them comfortable;
  • Prastice transporting pets by taking them for rides in a vehicle similar to be used for evacuation;
  • If you do not have a car, make arrangements with neighbours, family and friends, or contact your local government department to learn about transportation options during a disaster;
  • Know where your pet might hide when stressed or scared and practise catching your pet, if needed; and
  • Have your entire family practise evacuating with pets, so everyone knows what to take, where to find the pets, and where to meet.

During a disaster, the CDC advises to keep a pet's vaccinations, heartworm, flea, and tick preventatives up to date, to wash hands after handling the pet, its food or its waste and avoid allowing the pet to lick faces or hands. Practise safe handling the pet, as its behaviour may change during a stressful situation. Keep pets in a carrier or on a leash during the emergency. Avoid interactions with other animals, especially wildlife and strays, and report any bite wounds to medical personnel immediately. Litterboxes and cages should be cleaned and disinfected and bedding washed regularly. In particular, pets should not be allowed to play in or drink contaminated water, particularly after flooding and other natural events.

Many disasters may be out of our control, but working on physical and psychological preparedness is paramount to lessen the consequences if they occur. Education, practice and a resilient mindset are our allies.

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