CATS AND CATASTROPHES
A few years ago, I returned home from an evening out to discover my front door glass smashed - not by burglars, but by the fire brigade. My smoke alarm had alerted neighbours early enough that the fire in my kitchen was extinguished while damage was minimal and the firemen had taken care to rescue the cats. However this set my mind to thinking what might have happened had the fire spread. I might have been able to stay with friends, but what about my cats?
Disasters always occur in threes: I'd already been involved in a car crash and a couple of months later the house was partly flooded by a burst water mains in the street outside. Once again, damage was minimal and the cats escaped with nothing worse than wet paws, but it made me think of the serious, naturally caused floods which have occurred elsewhere in the country.
Luckily Britain doesn't usually suffer from natural disasters on the same scale as other parts of the world where earthquakes, floods and hurricanes are a normal part of life. In recent years, we are see more regular flooding, serious enough to drown farm livestock in their fields and force homeowners to evacuate. We have had a couple of very minor earthquakes (between 4 and 5 on the Richter scale) and some serious gales, including a hurricane which caused major damage to the Southern parts of Britain several years ago.
Natural disaster may not be common, but there are man-made disasters. For example a cloud of toxic gas from a chemical plant or tanker spillage or the discovery of an unexploded WW2 bomb when at a building site a short way down the street. The police tell you to be ready to evacuate to XYZ Sports Hall should the need arise, or to evacuate immediately. What about your most valuable possessions - your cats - you ask. Sorry, you are told, no pets allowed. You don't know how long you'll be away from your home or how safe your home is going to be should there be an explosion. In the case of chemical spillage, you may have to option of sitting tight with your windows tightly closed until a someone with a bullhorn tells you the fumes have gone.
The disaster scenario is more common in parts of the world where there is regular danger of earthquake, flooding, volcanic eruption, hurricane or forest fire - when the instructions would be "Evacuate immediately!" rather than "sit tight". Most people are unprepared for such events and the thought of losing irreplaceable items of great sentimental value is enough to immobilise people with shock - a loss of precious time. To add insult to injury, or so it seems, the evacuation centre does not make any provision for animal members of your family.
While the emergency services, St John's Ambulance, local volunteer groups or even the Red Cross may have set up centres for human refugees from disaster they usually make no provision for pets. Pets are members of the family too, and like young children they are dependent on adults to care for them and to remove them from danger. The actions of a British man who lost his own life while saving his pet cat during forest fires in America showed that many people value their pets' lives above their own. The British Isles has few natural disaster compared to many countries; however "freak" weather events are becoming more common during the 21st century as extensive flooding has demonstrated. Accidents and man-made catastrophes also occur. It pays to be prepared - make sure you know where essential items are: a torch with fresh batteries, first aid kit, blankets etc. Just knowing where these things are saves time. This common-sense approach should be extended to your pets.
Contrary to popular opinion, pets can't look after themselves during and after a disaster situation. They rely on their owners - which is why it is important to know where your own supplies are. Some items can be improvised. In disaster-prone areas, cat-owners may keep a whole cat emergency kit in a carry-crate.
Firstly, know what sort of disasters are most likely. Not all emergencies result in evacuation. If the hazard is flooding, make sure you have your emergencies supplies up stairs or on high surfaces or they will become soaked and useless or contaminated with sewage from overflowing drains. If the emergency is a bomb scare and you are evacuated (i.e. immediately, no time to pack) to a church hall etc, you may not be allowed to take your cats. You have to make a decision whether to shut the cats indoors with litter tray and a day's supply of food (dry food is best, it stays fresh for longer) or whether to put down food but give them access to outdoors where they can escape (in the UK 90% of cats have regular access to outdoors).
If the evacuation lasts longer than one day, you may be allowed to return temporarily to feed or collect the cats on 'humane grounds', but remember - the police's priority is human safety and you will not be allowed to return to an unsafe area.
If the emergency happens when you are away from home, make sure neighbours know that you have pets or have a window stickers saying how many pets are inside your house. Emergency services will be checking for left-behind humans and they may alert an animal society that there are pets in the house. If they feel that the animals are in imminent danger, they may break in so that the animals have at least some chance of escaping to safety - a good reason to ensure that cats are microchipped or wear an ID tag.
Flooding is one of the top concerns for many British cat owners. Over the winter of 2013-2014, there was extensive flooding of parts of Somerset, Wales, the West coast and the upper Thames area. DEFRA issued advice to British pet and livestock owners and I've based this section on their official advice, but geared towards cats.
In general, a cat owner should check that all areas which they regularly use, or where they are kept (such as gardens, pens) are flood free before letting their pet out. Cats that live outdoors may need alternative sleeping arrangements or shelter. Remember, cats that are penned (either outdoors or indoors) cannot escape to higher ground if waters rise and cats have drowned as a result of this.
Most cats avoid water and few owners take their cats for walks on a leash, but if you do take your cat for a walk, avoid floods and don't let it off the leash near flooding as there can be strong currents which may put it at risk. I've known of cats that were overtaken by flood water and later found high up in trees.
Make sure your cat is microchipped, tattooed or wears an ID collar. If it escapes to high ground or is stranded, its rescuers can more easily trace you (though this may be delayed if you yourself have been evacuated). Make sure you have enough cat carriers, preferably waterproof (wet cardboard disintegrates), for all the cats you need to move. I also have a collapsible kittening pen/hospital cage so that cats can be confined in it (short term) if moved to an emergency shelter.
DEFRA's advice to the public as applicable to cats:
If you are at risk of flooding you should:
If you need to evacuate your property you should:
If you don't keep a ready-packed kit, make sure you can quickly assemble the items you will need. Even if you are ordered to sit out the emergency (or you refuse to evacuate), you will still need some of these items to use until things return to normal.
A cat emergency kit should include:
If the emergency services' instructions are "sit tight", you and your cats will be under house-arrest for anything from a few hours to a day. If the emergency is likely to go on for longer than a day, you will usually be asked to assemble necessary items ready for temporary evacuation. It's a good idea to ring friends or family outside of the emergency zone and ask for temporary accommodation for yourself and your animals.
If you are staying indoors (toxic gas, chemical leak etc), shut all windows and external doors to keep fumes out as much as possible Make sure your cats are indoors and lock or block the cat flap. If only some of the cats are indoors, confine them to one room and don't block the cat flap until all cats are home. If it can be set to 'entry only' do that. If the cat flap can't be secured, keep the cats in a room which can be secured. Food, water and litter tray are essential.
Although flooding is unpleasant and costly, you may at least have the option of camping out upstairs until the water subsides. Make sure that you get perishable supplies of dry food (and of cat litter) upstairs before the water reaches them, and make sure that Puss cannot escape from an upstairs window.
If the advice is to evacuate, but the local shelter won't allow you in with a cat in a carrier, even for a short time, remind them that many people have refused to leave their homes if they cannot take their pets. If make alternative arrangements to stay with family or friends, make sure you advise emergency co-ordinators, otherwise they may think you are missing or are injured or unconscious in your house.
Whether or not you can stay in your own home, make sure you know where your cat likes to spend his time. Otherwise, the panic in your voice when you try to find him will make him even more nervous, harder to find and less willing to co-operate when you do find him. Once you find him, you still need to get him into the carrier - after all this item is more often associated with visits to the vet than with pleasure trips. If time is a factor, wrapping him in a towel may make this easier. In emergencies, normal rules are in abeyance. Many cats have had their lives saved because the owner stuffed them in a pillow case and got them out of a burning house.
In larger scale emergencies, emergency centres are often set up for humans evacuated from their homes. Few are equipped to cope with animals. While budgies in cages and dogs on leashes may be accepted, cats are more of a problem since they don't sit quiet when on a leash and they don't want to mix with strange dogs or cats. While cats may be able to spend some time in a cat carrier, they will eventually need to urinate or defecate. Unless someone is there to supervise, a kitten pen may not be safe if there are enquiring little fingers liable to undo the door and let the cats out (a padlock is a solution, but have spare keys on your person). Cats may even be barred entirely from the shelter due to the risk of asthma and toxoplasmosis.
If you have relatives or friends within driving distance, they may be willing to let your cats use a secure room or have kitten pen in their house until you can return home. A real good friend might even foster your cats until your own home is habitable again, but this is could be pushing the bounds of friendship. By inventive - do you have access to a holiday caravan (trailer) within reasonable distance? If you own other premises (e.g. an office or flat [apartment] above a shop), can those premises be used short term?
Remember to take your own cat-food, litter tray, dishes and fork with you since your friends probably won't want to share their own crockery and cutlery with cats. If it looks as though your stay away from home is going to be prolonged, you will need to find a cattery which will accept the cats at short notice. This is why it is useful to know where the vaccination certificates are. Some charity rescue shelters might have room to board cats, even without certificates, but if the emergency affects more than just a few people, they will be coping with stray cats.
Since emergencies are relatively uncommon in Britain, your local cat shelters, catteries, vets etc are unlikely to have contingency plans. Indeed, vets, catteries, shelters may find themselves having to evacuate due to flooding and they will be in a worse situation than you. It may be possible to temporarily "board" your cat at a shelter, but they are likely to be under great stress already due to stray cats whose owners have left them in situ to fend for themselves.
A cattery will want proof of vaccination, but sometimes it will suspend these rules in an emergency unless the cat is visibly unwell. It's a case of weighing up relative risks in an emergency situation. A vet clinic is not a boarding facility. Unlike American vet clinics, British vets do not generally take boarders and will have only enough accommodation for patients. Unless your cat is ill or injured, the vet clinic will probably have more pressing priorities.
If a shelter does agree to care for the cat on a temporary basis you'll need to ensure that they understand that the cat is not to be rehomed or euthanized unless you feel thar rehoming is in the cat's best interest. You may be asked to leave a deposit or cheque which will be returned to you when you collect the cat and forfeit if you abandon the cat while it's in care.
Even if not asked for a donation, remember that shelters are voluntary organisations already under great financial strain and a donation which at least covers your cat's food and cat-litter costs will be appreciated. If the shelter cannot take your cat(s), don't become angry. It may be frustrating, but the shelter might already be full to overflowing with temporarily homeless cats, stray or abandoned cats.
SORRY MA'AM - PETS MUST STAY BEHIND ...
It is not fair or advisable to leave any pet behind in a situation where you yourself would evacuate. Sometimes such a situation does occur, for example if you suffer from a respiratory problem which would be exacerbated by a cloud of chemical vapours heading your way. You may be at greater risk of danger than your cat in this case and while Puss may be safe shut indoors, you may need to camp out away from the potential problem.
If you have to leave cats behind, make the same arrangements you would make when going on holiday. Make sure there is plenty of water available in a non-tip bowl or a small saucepan. An automatic feeder will give your cat its meals in measured portions so that it can't eat 48 hours worth of food in a few minutes, but most cats can go without food for a day (this is not true of diabetic cats or cats with a variety of other medical conditions). A single litter tray might soon become fouled, so provide several trays in different areas.
Many owners already have window stickers, such as the "In case of fire please rescue my [...] cats" to alert emergency services that there are cats in residence. While human safety is their prime concern, many emergency service workers are pet-friendly if they have the luxury of time. In a fire at my own home (while I was out) the fire brigade left a note saying "rescued the following cats: black-and-white fluffy, ginger fluffy, no other pets in evidence" and asked me to phone to let them know that the animals were safe (the third cat was actually outdoors, having exited through the cat flap - she was watching all the fun and she was first to greet me when I returned).
Luckily the fire at my house was not serious, largely due to having a smoke alarm and observant neighbours. Damage was minimal and the house was habitable, albeit rather smoky-smelling and sooty in places for quite a while. The cats were very nervous for some time; every time well-grilled toast set off the smoke alarm they ran for cover, workmen in heavy footwear or overalls sent them fleeing and the rest of the time they remained close to me for reassurance. Some cats settle down again more quickly than others after such an experience. My cat number three, I'm ashamed to say, thought the whole thing was a huge adventure and would rather like to repeat the experience.
If your home needs extensive repairs after a disaster, it is better to board the cats at a cattery or ask friends to foster them until your own house is habitable again. This will be less frightening for the cats, who will already have had enough upsets. It also means that you can get on with clearing up without worrying about cats underfoot.
If you and the cats move home straight away, they are bound to be nervous for a while. Some will become excessively clinging while others will hide away. Even though you may be under stress, try to find time to reassure your cats. Like young children, they can't rationalise away their fears or understand what has happened to their safe, secure home. They may develop temporary behaviour problems such as spraying (to reassert their territorial rights) or litter tray mishaps. These should go away as they settle down and if you cleanse soiled areas so that the these things don't become habits. They need to build up their confidence again. A few cats sail through the experience unscathed (like my number 3 cat), but most will take time to get over all the frights and upsets.
Although the household may return to a semblance of normality after a relatively short time, your cats may be traumatised for some time afterwards. You may be emotionally devastated, but they have been terrified by events they can't comprehend. Lost or damaged possessions can be replaced, cats can't. I may have lost my cooker, but at least I didn't lose my cats.
What if it's not you that gets caught up in an emergency situation or disaster? What if a friend is flooded out, or loses their home due to fire? You might not think you can do much to help, but you can.
If a friend is affected, you might be able to foster cats until your friend gets some accommodation arranged. You may be able to offer your services as an emergency fosterer for a cat shelter. In areas which often suffer flooding or fire, animal shelters, vets or emergency co-ordinators maintain lists of emergency carers prepared to look after animals displaced by disaster. If you live outside the area generally affected you could register as a fosterer. Whatever you do, don't turn up at the scene and get in the way of emergency workers; there will be far too many onlookers already. If you do go to the scene to volunteer - take your cat carriers with you (most types of cat traps can be also used to transport cats in an emergency), in case you need them immediately - and find a volunteers co-ordinator.
I was lucky, I had a smoke-alarm which gave early warning of the fire, otherwise I might have lost an awful lot more, including my precious cats. A local woman lost thirteen of her cats, as well as other pets, in a fire at her home. Sadly, despite being prepared for almost every conceivable disaster, sometimes situations do occur where animals cannot be saved despite everybody's best efforts. You make your family and children go through flood or fire drills or evacuation practice, but you can't do the same with your pets because they don't associate the drill with the real event and will probably be panicking. Emotional, as well as practical, support is necessary. Losing possessions is bad enough, but for many people, being unable to save an animal member of the family is worse by far.