Be Prepared for a Disaster: How to Evacuate with Cats

No matter where you live, catastrophe can strike without warning. Even if you’re not susceptible to hurricanes or floods, you could be at risk for unpredictable disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes, chemical spills or even a house fire. Alice Moon-Fanelli, Ph.D., a certified-applied animal behaviorist with Animal Behavior Consultations in Brooklyn, Connecticut, can attest firsthand that crises happen when you least expect them. Several years ago, her chimney burst into flames. “My husband yelled at me to get the cats,” she says. “The crates were in the cellar. Who plans on having a nightmare? As soon as the carriers came out, the cats disappeared.” So, how do you evacuate with cats?

How to evacuate with cats? Start by planning ahead.

An orange ginger tabby in a red carrier. Photography by Kachalkina Veronika / Shutterstock.

Get your cat acclimated to her carrier before disaster strikes. Photography by Kachalkina Veronika / Shutterstock.

According to the American Kennel Club, approximately 500,000 pets are affected by house fires every year. In the event your kitchen catches fire or you’re ordered to evacuate, you need an emergency plan in place that includes your cats.

Jim Carson, who has a cat named Indiana and dog named Heidi, also had a close encounter with a house fire. At 1 a.m., firefighters woke him up, concerned that a nearby house fire could spread to his home.

“I kept carrying cages in the front closet,” he says. “It was quick and efficient, and I would never think about keeping them anywhere else. The outside situation was chaos and the animals were scared to death. I was able to put them in the car and out of harm’s way. I have no doubt that if they weren’t in the cages they’d have bolted.”

The Electrical Safety Foundation International suggests attaching a pet alert sticker to a window near your front door. If you get outside without your cat, immediately tell firefighters your pet is trapped inside. Don’t go back in once you are outside.

When you evacuate, never leave your animals behind even if officials promise you’ll only be gone for a few minutes. If it isn’t safe for you, it’s not safe for your cat. A few minutes can expand into weeks before you’re permitted to return.

Dr. Dick Green, the senior director of disaster response for the ASPCA, says because disasters such as train derailments or earthquakes provide no warning, “we have to be dependent on preplanning. Anticipate. If you get word of a nearby wildfire, put [your pet] in the safe room with his toys, food and bed.

How to get your cat safely in his carrier during an emergency:

Cats can be challenging to catch during an emergency because they instinctively hide from danger. Of course, the best-case scenario includes a well-trained cat trotting into his carrier. However, since most cats associate the appearance of the carrier with the vet, they hide. Instead of bringing the carriers out first, slip a cotton pillowcase over the cat. Once he’s in the pillowcase, slide him into a carrier and head for safety.

Better still, train your cat to go into his carrier or the safe room on command. “Keep the carrier out in the open and throw treats in there from time to time, so the cat keeps checking,” Moon-Fanelli suggests. “Keep a towel in there to make it comfy.”

Because your animal may not be able to hear your voice over alarms Herb Carver (aka The Catastrophe Geek) recommends training your cat to respond to a whistle. If you’re unable to catch him, you can whistle to him in a disaster’s aftermath.

Just like fire drills in school, go through the motions occasionally, says Lynn Molnar, founder and president of Thankful Paws mobile food bank for pets. “Know where you will drive to be safe,” she says. “Pick several locations, just in case something prevents you from taking your preferred route. If you have a plan and stay calm, your cat will too. They take their emotional cues from us.”

Be proactive if a disaster like a hurricane or flood is even a possibility.

When you are given a lot of warning time, as with a hurricane or rising floodwaters, be proactive. Take a day of vacation and leave the potentially affected area early. You won’t need to take as many supplies. A three-day supply of cat food, water and cat litter should suffice. Your destination will have grocery stores.

Call ahead to make sure evacuation shelters or relatives will welcome your cat, says Matt Lawrence, author of What to Do ‘Til the Cavalry Comes: A Family Guide to Preparedness in the 21st Century. Since many emergency shelters don’t allow pets, consider checking into a pet-friendly hotel. These facilities fill up fast, so make reservations as soon as you make the decision to leave.

Survival Weekly’s Jim Cobb warns shelters may require proof of immunizations, so have a complete copy of those records in your evacuation kit.

If your community doesn’t have an emergency shelter for people and pets, start the conversation now, and ask about how to start one. There are lots of pet people out there: As soon as one person speaks up, other people will join in to help!

Make sure your cat has identification.

Your cat should wear current rabies tags and a name tag engraved with your cell phone as well as a relative’s number. Should you become separated, his ID tags will provide information that can reunite you. But remember collars can come off, and with them your pet’s identity.

A microchip ensures your pet will never become separated from his ID. And equally as important as implanting the chip is registering it and notifying the registry whenever your contact information changes. If your pet doesn’t have a microchip, keep a picture of him on your cell phone for identification purposes.

Prepare an evacuation kit.

Each pet needs his own carrier and a “go bag” with everything he’ll need during an evacuation. Keep emergency provisions in sturdy containers that can be carried easily (plastic tub, duffle bags, covered trash containers, etc.). Tape the checklist below to it. Make note whenever you replace food, water and medications (every six months is a good method).

Your cat’s emergency kit should include:

  • An accessible carrier for every pet. You don’t want to have to dig under 20 years of Cat Fancy back issues in the attic when Barney Fife is telling you to leave. Carriers should be large enough for your cat to stand up and turn around in. Line the carrier floor with puppy pads or give kitty a shoebox litter box. Write your contact information in permanent marker on the carrier and duct tape his photo to it.
  • A photo of each of your pets and a description of their breed, age, sex, color, and markings.
  • Copies of your cat’s medical and vaccination records. In the event your vet’s clinic receives a direct impact, you’ve lost those records. Veterinary records may be needed for transport across state lines.
  • Photocopies of ownership papers and city license.
  • A list of phone numbers including: your veterinarian, pet-friendly motels, emergency clinic, animal poison control center, and area animal shelters.
  • Cat food — at least a three-day supply or two weeks, depending on your situation. If you feed wet food, look for the pouches or small cans with pull tabs, says Paul Purcell of Disaster Prep 101. ”You may be in a situation with no power for refrigeration so food cannot be stored. Duct tape a three-gallon bag filled with dry food to the side of the carrier and regularly replace old food with fresh kibble. Don’t forget your kitty’s comfort food.
  • Water. One gallon per pet per day.
  • Food and water bowls.
  • Harness with a D-ring for a leash. If you or shelter volunteers need to scoop the litter box, a harness gives you more control over a frightened, fractious cat who could slip out of his safety collar.
  • Medications. If your cat requires maintenance medications, ask your vet for a two-week supply in pills or un-reconstituted powder, or keep an unfilled drug prescription with your evacuation paperwork.
  • Litter box, litter scoop, preferred brand of litter, and plastic bags for poop. Aluminum baking pans make great disposable litter boxes.
  • Paper towels and baby wipes.
  • Pet first aid kit.
  • Comfort items. A beloved toy, blanket or bed reassures your kitty that everything is going to be OK. Place one of your unwashed T-shirts in a zippered plastic bag. It can be used as bedding and make him feel more at ease.
  • Brush/comb, for long-haired pets.
  • Tranquilizers or calming remedies. Rescue Remedy, Feliway, etc.
  • Odor neutralizer.
  • Duct tape, in case the carrier is damaged.

Have you ever had to evacuate with your cat? Tell us how it went in the comments.

Thumbnail: Photography ©lopurice | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

This piece was originally published in 2016. 

Read more about cats and disaster preparedness on Catster: