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Handling Dogs, Cats and Other Pets During a Catastrophe

How to encourage stability when Mother Nature tosses a curve ball.

A few weeks after my husband and I moved our family to Sun Meadow Farm, Hurricane Irene swept through and knocked out our power for a week. My editor at Patch asked if I could do a piece on it, but without power…and a week late, the piece seemed moot.

After all, it was a freak occurrence.  A 10-year storm. Only the second time in history that so many residents had had extended power outages. So I let it slide.

Then it snowed. In October. And we lost power for another week. And for the third time in history, thousands of residents experienced extended power outages. Our power is restored, but my faith in the grid is a bit shaky, so let’s look at these historic storms from your dog’s perspective.

Like kids, dogs are quite resilient, but storms can place unforeseen stress on both species. Set in their routines, dependent on the constancies of their home environment and schedule, a storm often transforms their world and restricts their emotional landscape.  

Most importantly, however, is how the disaster affects the emotional balance of their caregivers, which shakes their stability and concentration. These most recent storms came complete with downed wires, howling winds and dangerous flooding, so my dogs, cats and kids were kept inside and redirected to alternative activities. Thankfully I had a stockpile of chew toys which the dogs nibbled nervously as my husband and I made last-minute preparations for the power outage that hit before noon.  

Here are a few tips to keep your pets calm and content during future weather emergencies:

  • Small dogs and heavy snows often cause housebreaking backslides: it is best to consider a bad weather spot under an awning or in the garage that can be covered with mulch into a makeshift potty area.
  • High-energy dogs, accustomed to routine trips to the park or blessed with their own fenced enclosure, may be hard to contain or satisfy during prolonged power outages. I spent much of my previously free “dog time” hauling buckets of water to flush the toilets. While not an especially fun or interactive game, I did encourage the dogs to follow me on my primitive plumbing rounds. Any exercise is good exercise.
  • Indoor cats have few adjustments but indoor/outdoor cats bear some strain during a weather disaster. Some cats prefer to eliminate outside whenever possible but when confined to the house, most will adapt to a litter box. Be sure to have extra litter on hand to keep the box clean, especially if you have more than one cat.

Heat-dependent pets like lizards, tropical fish and amphibians cannot tolerate fluctuations in temperature and may not survive a prolonged power outage. Unless you have their systems attached to a generator, consider a plan to move them to a safe location.

Kids and pets need an anchor during any storm: a grown-up who can stay present to direct them when life throws them off-kilter. As bad as these storms have been, I’m grateful for kids who can create a fantasy kingdom out of snowballs, dogs who have learned to stay on their mats and are satisfied with a chew toy, and far-reaching friends who let us use their shower. Considering other worldly calamities, a few days without power helped us count our blessings.

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