This summer is far from the breezy beach experience we wanted. Instead of coordinating family vacations, you or someone you know is likely struggling to stay safe amid the California wildfires and ongoing pandemic. But rest assured, there are ways to manage these imminent concerns and hold your family together, your pets included.
Our two outstanding veterinary behaviorists, Dr. Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, CAWA, and Dr. Wailani Sung, MS, PhD, DVM, DACVB, put together a clear plan for how you can keep your dogs and cats with you safely through this emergency. Your pets are better off staying with you even though they may be stressed. It is much less stressful for a pet to stay with their family in an unfamiliar location than to be placed in a shelter where all pets have a higher level of stress and are unable to seek the comfort of their family. Please listen to the news, pay attention to the weather and air quality reports, and be prepared with a disaster kit.
If you’ve been forced to evacuate your home, you may be staying with friends, in a hotel, or at a shelter. Some of the fire shelters do not allow pets other than service animals and we know many people are now spending the night in their vehicles. It is important to keep your pets close to you and provide distractions. Travel is not just stressful for people, but also the pets who do not know what is going on.
Some people may be tempted to relinquish their pets during times of disaster due to stress of caring for them in a more confined space. Before you contemplate this idea, there are things you can do to help reduce the stress of seeking shelter with your pet.
These tips can be implemented if you are at a hotel or at a friend’s house.
- If your host has a dog, plan on introducing both dogs outside for a short period of time. If both are friendly, they can meet face to face. If you are unsure, stay across the street and go on a short parallel walk together. Gradually move a bit closer every 20-30 feet and observe both dogs’ behavior. If they both look relaxed, continue to move closer until they can meet. Walk around the block together and have your dog enter the house before your friend’s dog. Allow them to interact for a short period of time if there is no sign of tension or aggression before removing your dog and placing him back in your room.
- Set up your dog crate and pet gates to confine your dog and cat to your room so they are not disruptive to your host’s household.
- Do not leave your pets unsupervised with your host’s pets.
- In your new quarters, play calming music. There is music designed specifically to help reduce anxiety in dogs and cats such as Through a Dog’s Ear or Through a Cat’s Ear. The calming music can help both you and your pets relax. Keep in mind some dogs have different preferences for calming sounds. One study found that some dogs were calmer when they heard reggae music while another study found that dogs preferred the sound of audiobooks.
- The use of species-specific pheromones, such as Adaptil for dogs and Feliway Multicat for cats, can provide your pet with the feeling of being safe and secure.
- Provide short 5-10 minute play sessions with your pet 2-3 times throughout the day. Your play may be limited due to the space you are residing in. Get creative. Cats will play with any string even if it is your shoelace and will bat around any crumpled piece of paper. Your dog may enjoy a short training session to earn treats or use his nose on a snuffle mat to earn goodies; or he might play hide and seek and maintain a “stay” while you hide his favorite toy and he has to look for it.
- Due to the poor air quality, only take your dog out long enough to allow her to eliminate and then bring her back inside. Provide your pet with something to do instead of taking long walks or jogs around the block. Provide puzzle toys to work for their favorite treats or meals. This will help keep them focused on an activity that exercises both their brain and body.
- Provide a safe place for your pet to hide.
a. Some cats prefer to hide in low places and other cats prefer higher places. Place your cat carrier under the bed or in the corner of the room and cover it with a blanket or towel. You can provide a cardboard box turned on its side for your cat to hide in. The box can then be placed on top of a dresser or chair to provide your cat with an option for an elevated space.
b. For your dogs, a crate would be an ideal place for them to go relax. It can also be used to confine your dog when you need to leave them for a short period of time alone in an unfamiliar space. If your dog has not been crate trained, please see our handout on Crate Training an Adult Dog.
c. If you do not have the luxury of taking several days to crate train, then you can try to do it in a shorter period of time with more sessions to build up a lot of positive associations with the crate. Work on 5-10 short sessions throughout the day and offer high-value treats. Practice closing the crate door, leaving a puzzle toy filled with high-value treats, and going out of sight for a few seconds. Then come back, open the crate door, and if your dog is not finished with the toy, safely remove it and reserve it for your next crate session. You want your dog eager for the next session so that she can work on the puzzle toy for a longer period of time. If you cannot remove the toy without your dog exhibiting aggressive behavior, let your dog have it.
- If your pet is very distressed and displaying behavior such as vocalizing, panting, pacing, hiding, refusing to eat, drink, or eliminate, or not getting along with your host’s dog, then it is time to seek out the help of a veterinarian. In this case, your pet may benefit from being placed on short-term anti-anxiety medications to help him adjust to the new environment. Medication can help reduce overall anxiety in both dogs and cats. It will also help those dogs who do need to be confined in a crate for short periods of time in their owner’s absence.
The most important takeaway from this plan is to know that your pet will be happiest staying with you. Please consider the many ways you can reduce stress while facing these disasters and equip your family with an emergency kit.
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The San Francisco SPCA is a non-profit organization that relies on the generosity of donors. As we respond to the California wildfires and COVID-19 pandemic, your support allows our lifesaving work to continue. Please consider making a monthly donation. It means the world to us. It means the world to them.