Want to save your pet’s life?  Make friends with your neighbors.

Want to save your pet’s life? Make friends with your neighbors.


By Leslie Irvine

Although we cannot know whether the next disaster will be caused by fire, flood or something else, we know there will be a “next time.” State officials predict higher than normal wildfire potential this summer. The Marshall Fire revealed how a wildfire can quickly become an urban firestorm. The most important action Coloradans can take is to plan ahead for what they will do when disaster strikes. In nearly two decades of studying animal welfare in disasters, I have repeatedly seen the importance of including the needs of pets in emergency planning. Now, findings from my research on the welfare of pets in the Marshall Fire reveal an important but often overlooked dimension of preparedness.

Data from the American Veterinary Medical Association puts Colorado in the top ten states for pet ownership. Sixty percent of Colorado households include dogs, cats, birds and horses, and most pet-owning households include more than one animal. Of the 1,100-plus homes destroyed or damaged in the Marshall Fire, estimates put at least one pet in 739 of these households. Estimating the number of households with additional pets raises the potential number of animals affected to 1,182. Of course, “affected by” can have different meanings.

The luckiest animals evacuated with their human families who were home at the time. Others were rescued by first responders, volunteers or other evacuees who took them to local animal shelters. Some who suffered burns and other injuries received treatment, and several were reunited with their grateful families. However, countless animals died when their owners could not get home to retrieve them, either because they were away at the time or because the thick smoke and fast-moving flames made entering their neighborhoods impossible. Some owners found the remains of their animals in their devastated property. The fates of many animals left behind remain unknown, and heartbroken owners still hope for sightings and reunions. The photos of hundreds of cats appear online, tagged with #StillMissing. Dedicated, trained volunteers continue to stock food and water stations in the burn zone and monitor humane traps and trail cams.

In the United States today, most people who have pets consider them members of the family. Consequently, the story of each missing or deceased pet leads to a brokenhearted child or a grieving adult who lost a cherished relationship. Along with grief, people who lose pets in disasters often feel guilt and regret for their inability to save their animals. Of course, preparing for disasters can reduce the risk of losing a pet, but no one can anticipate every situation. Preparedness guidelines for pets, which are readily available online, cover the basics such as having identification, vaccination records and contact information for veterinarians, along with sufficient food, water and any medications. Cats also need carriers, litter and litter boxes. Other necessities include leashes and collars for dogs and bags to dispose of waste. Horse owners need access to trailers. Anyone responsible for animals, small or large, should know where to take them — and contrary to popular belief, hotels are not required to accommodate pets in disasters.

The Marshall Fire pet research reveals that preparedness must also include planning for what will happen to your pets if you are not home when disaster strikes. This requires building a network of people whom you trust to have access to your home in an emergency. Your pets should also trust these people enough to allow them to enter their home, handle them, leash them, put them in a crate and transport them as needed. Moreover, these people should know where each pet might hide, as well as what it takes to get them out and what to do with them at that point.

A web-based app to connect and notify trusted networks for pet rescue in disasters is in development. However, even the best technology of this sort ultimately relies on human relationships. Reaching out to that dog owner across the street or to the neighbor whose cats you have seen in the window will feel awkward. However, it’s worth starting this conversation. The connections that develop can save animals’ lives.

Leslie Irvine is a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. She studies the various roles of animals in society. She lives in Longmont.

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