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Evacuating Populations With Special Needs

Routes to Effective Evacuation Planning Primer Series

Service dog leading a blind person

Chapter 7: Animal Needs

Glossary Terms
Used in this Chapter:

Stafford Act

Animals have the same general needs as people during evacuations—safety, food, water, and shelter. However, due to the variety of animals that are domesticated and under human care, there are a wide variety of needs in handling, transporting, and sheltering these animals. Amendments to the Stafford Act in 2006, known as the PETS Act (see Chapter 2), require that jurisdictions integrate animal planning into local emergency response plans. [75] Congress intended this law to enhance animal safety in disasters, minimize public health concerns due to mass fatalities of animals, and ultimately encourage pet owners to evacuate with their animals rather than remain in danger with them.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Nationwide Plan Review (NPR): Phase 2 Report (2006) addresses findings and best practices for service animal planning in all US states, reporting that only 23 percent of states have sufficient plans.

While the need for service animal planning is clear, extensive information primarily exists in brochure and planning guidance format for preparing animals in the event of disaster. However, this guidance tends to focus on preparedness kits, locating animal-friendly shelters for household pets, addressing livestock concerns, and animal rescue after disaster. Service animals are often only addressed in brief, primarily to discuss preparedness kits for the animal and legal rights to public shelter access. Numerous Web sites also provide guidance for animal preparedness, including the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the ARC, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and the NOD. In fact, the NOD’s brochure on service animals states that household pets and service animals are treated very distinctly. Planners should address household pets and service animals differently in plans and during evacuation operations.

Of note, the NFPA's Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities (2007), which primarily focuses on structural evacuation planning, does include a discussion on service animals including legal rights of the owners. The guide also makes suggestions for service animal planning including addressing issues if the animal becomes disoriented or disturbed during emergency situations.

Most research on the topic lacks discussion on how to prepare for and manage transportation of service animals on public transportation systems. Literature applicable to service animals and evacuation via mass transit addresses preparedness before the event and/or activity after arrival at a shelter. The body of research on activities during an evacuation remains scant or non-existent. Amendments to the Stafford Act in 2006 (P.L. 109-308, 2006) require that jurisdictions integrate animal planning into local emergency response plans. However, it is unclear to what extent jurisdictions have complied with this new requirement. Although the NPR assessed all state plans, the changes in the law came after the NPR was completed. In addition, the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) released a report that briefly addresses service animals, stating that they should never be separated from their owners, but does not detail methods to ensure this during evacuations.

Animal Types

Authorities categorize animals as household pets, working animals, farm and livestock animals, and institutional animals (e.g., those residing in zoos). Each has specific needs for transportation in evacuation, some of which are protected by federal law and others that are the responsibility of the owner. Owners of household pets, working animals, and farm and livestock, and those managing institutional animals must pre-plan transportation assistance to accommodate the specific needs of animals during evacuations. Government planners should be prepared to assist in the movement of large groups of animals, if necessary and consistent with public safety.

Service Animal (auxiliary aid)

Service animals perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for him- or herself. For example, “seeing-eye dogs” are one type of service animal used by some individuals who are blind. People are most familiar with this type of service animal, but other service animals assist persons with different kinds of disabilities in their day-to-day activities. Some examples include:

  • Alerting those with hearing impairments to sounds
  • Pulling wheelchairs or carrying and picking up things for those with mobility impairments
  • Assisting those with mobility impairments with balance. [76]

Service animals are permitted in all places that serve the public as long as the animal is not out of control or otherwise posing a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals. [77] This access includes transportation with their owners/handlers during evacuations.

It is important to recognize that not all service animals are dogs, so transportation agencies should anticipate a variety of animals.

HHS guidance, Dealing with Disabilities: Tips for First Responders, points out that some service animals are not registered in any way; therefore, the responder must trust the word of the evacuee in designating the animal as such. This guidance goes as far as to state that companion animals may be for psychiatric and emotional disabilities as well. [78] This can complicate determination of “service animals,” and transportation providers, in collaboration with partner human services organizations, should develop individual procedures for assessing situations. The DOJ’s ADA Information Line, the HSUS, and others may provide assistance in establishing such procedures. [79]

In accessing forms of transportation, planners should cover the presence of service animals and the potential need to assist animals during evacuations. The animal should be kept with the handler to the greatest extent possible to minimize movement trauma and general safety to both. Emergency personnel and owners must address potential medical needs of the service animal to maintain the animal’s health. As a result, transportation must include provisions to carry any necessary medications for animals as they would for a human passenger.

Household Pets

The ASPCA reports that:

  • More than 30 percent of people who did not evacuate during Hurricane Katrina chose to stay to remain with their animals
  • Up to 50 percent of households do not have a disaster plan for their animals
  • 67 percent would not seek shelter if they had to leave their animals behind.

Household pets may represent a wide variety of species, including dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, rodents, and turtles. People also own horses, amphibians, fish, insects/arachnids, farm animals, and others that are not defined as household pets by FEMA. The AVMA reports that:

  • An estimated 58 percent of all US households have pets [80]
  • About 39 percent of households own dogs, and 34 percent care for cats. [81]

According to the HSUS people own:

  • Some 73 million dogs and around 90 million cats in the United States
  • About 11 million reptiles, kept as pets despite HSUS recommendations against such practices due to health and safety concerns. [82]  

While there are no requirements for public shelters to accept household pets, there is an increasing presence of “household pet-friendly” shelters as well as specific “household pet shelters.” These shelters require animals to be contained in appropriate containers to ensure the safety of both the household pet and the shelter workers, and the same principles should apply to transportation of such animals. As with other animals, medications should be transported with each animal and be clearly marked so that shelter workers can administer correct doses of necessary medications.

Farm Animal/Livestock

“In preparation for Hurricane Ike in 2008, Texas A & M students and faculty teamed with the Brazos County (Texas) Emergency Management Team to arrange shelter on university grounds for cats, dogs, horses, cattle, pigs, and other animals” according to National Geographic News on September 16, 2008.

Farm animals and livestock include animals that work on farms as well as stock for economic earnings. It is essential to address threats to livestock and farm animals as evidenced by previous events:

  • 1993: Hundreds of thousands of pigs were evacuated in Mississippi River flooding.
  • 1995: Heat waves killed several million poultry in Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware.
  • 1997: Over 90,000 cattle perished during blizzards and snow melt along the Red River (North-Central Midwestern states).
  • 1999: One million chickens and turkeys and 110,000 hogs died, and manure spills resulted in environmental contamination following Hurricane Floyd. [83]

Livestock may include familiar animals, such as cattle, pigs, poultry, sheep, and goats, but may also include more exotic species such as emus, buffalo, ostriches, and others. Due to the specialized nature and the large numbers that may need to be evacuated, authorities and farm owners should develop plans to move the animals that address appropriate transportation needs and agreements on where to offload them. Farm animals that are used as working animals may include dogs, horses, mules, and others. The University of Vermont Extension Web site provides guidelines for disaster preparedness and includes the following statement that is essential for safe and unimpeded transport: “[Maintain a] Current list of all animals, including their location and records of feeding, vaccinations and tests. Make this information available at various locations on the farm. Make sure that you have proof of ownership for all animals.” [84] Animals should also be properly identified with visible markings.

Institutional Animals (theme parks, zoos, research labs, pet stores, animal shelters)

The Miami Metro Zoo lost its aviary in Hurricane Andrew, and most of the 1,200 birds had to be recaptured.

The University of Miami Primate Research Center had several monkeys escape during Hurricane Andrew.

The New Orleans Aquarium of the Americas lost power during Hurricane Katrina and virtually all of its 10,000 fish died as a result.

Institutional animals represent a wide variety of species, living conditions, and vulnerabilities. Theme parks (e.g., drive-through safaris), water shows, zoos of all sizes, kennels, stables, veterinary clinics, research labs affiliated with universities and corporations, pet stores, and animal shelters host animals that may be exposed to hazards and the need for evacuation depending on the location and risks present. Also included in this category of animals are marine mammals in custodial situations, such as performing dolphins. Each institutional facility is responsible for developing emergency plans, whether the facility is a zoo or an animal shelter. Evacuation should be coordinated through local EMAs and the EOC during activation. Transportation agencies may be requested to assist with some of the evacuations, but requests will come through the EOC. Private facilities, including pet daycare centers and overnight boarding facilities, are also responsible for developing their own emergency plans.

Animal Sheltering

Animals, whether service animals or household pets, may require transportation assistance or support. Service animals must be treated as working animals and remain with their respective individuals. Such animals are typically exceptionally well trained and, when cared for accordingly, remain with their individuals to help maintain independence and reduce the overall impact on a transportation agency or shelter facility.

Pet-friendly shelters generally follow one of two models. One model is a shelter for household pets only, and owners can drop off their pets to be housed there in the event of a disaster. Some such shelters require owners to pre-register so that the shelter knows how many animals and of what kind they must accommodate. The second type of shelter houses both the people evacuated and their household pets in the same facility. For example, evacuees may be housed in a school gymnasium while their household pets are housed in adjacent school facilities. In either case, the pet owner must come prepared with the required food, medicine, leashes, collars, and crates for their household pets.

It is important for each community to plan for all contingencies, including transporting animals so that each supporting agency knows its function, requirements for vehicles and drivers, shelter destinations, and other such information to support an evacuation.

Transportation agencies can be very helpful when accommodating or transporting household pets, because doing so spurs people to evacuate—thus, saving more than one life. However, care must be taken as well because animals can cause allergic and asthmatic reactions among other passengers and can spread diseases. Animals that are injured, sick, or frightened can react defensively and cause injury to themselves, other animals, and the well-meaning human trying to help. Identifying a wide array of agencies and organizations to assist can go a long way toward preserving the lives of household pets and encouraging human evacuation, as well.


Vehicles used in transporting animals out of disaster areas historically have ranged from single cars to makeshift vans to specialized vehicles. The HSUS, for example, has a fleet of vehicles with “satellite communication, mobile animal shelters and climate-controlled transport trailers, veterinary equipment, boats, all-terrain vehicles and support vehicles.” The fleet is self-sufficient for a minimum of 72 hours. The Virginia Beach SPCA converts its spay and neuter vehicle into an emergency response unit during disasters for overall support. Local animal welfare agencies and humane societies may be able to partner with transportation agencies to move and shelter animals.

Some key elements must be present in vehicles that transport animals:

  • Ventilation
  • Security from attack or disease spread from other animals
  • Crates or units that are secured and will not move about or slip from the vehicle
  • Crates or units that are not subject to winds and projectiles from driving during transport.

Tracking and Reunification

Some household pets may have been implanted with a tracking device supported by the American Kennel Club. Local humane societies, veterinary colleges, and veterinarians may be able to provide handheld scanners to identify the animal's bar code and then provide an Internet link to check the owner's location. Supplemental means to identify animals may include putting a barcode onto an animal's collar.

Reunification of household pets should be coordinated through emergency management and animal rescue teams. If transportation agencies are requested to support the reunification effort, it will be coordinated through the EOC during activation. After Hurricane Katrina, the Animal Emergency Response Network (AERN) was developed by in collaboration with a number of public and private agencies. According to AERN, they developed “the most comprehensive database designed to centralize and organize information about pets in disaster who are in need of help or have been rescued and are waiting to be reunited with their families.” For more information about AERN, go to its Web site.

Medical, Quarantine, Veterinary

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana State University and its College of Veterinary Medicine opened up a pet shelter, supported a foster pet program, and provided emergency care to seriously ill and injured animals.

Transportation agencies should work with local emergency managers and humane societies to plan ahead for collection, transfer, housing, and care of animals including veterinary care. In addition, these entities should widely distribute materials describing the owner's responsibilities in preparing for and evacuating their animals.

Quarantine of animals may be necessary when animals exhibit signs of disease so that others do not contract the illness. Symptoms should be monitored closely, as even what appears to be a simple matter of running nose and/or diarrhea can result in the death of dozens of animals within a short time. If animals become ill during transportation, the animal and the vehicle in which they were transported may require decontamination, which would need to be coordinated with local emergency management and hazardous materials (HazMat) teams.

Advance identification of and agreements with pet-friendly shelters, boarding facilities, and other appropriate locations such as animal welfare facilities, humane society shelters, local veterinarians, colleges of veterinary medicine, rescue organizations, and foster home programs aid in more effective, safer, and rapid transfer of animals.


Photo of a golden retriever

Photo of a cat in a pet carrier

Photo of two budgerigar birds in a cage

To move animals carefully, the US Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) recommends using travel containers with:[85]

  • Locking bolts to secure the container
  • Metal doors since animals can chew through plastic
  • Four metal rods that fasten and secure the door into the container
  • No wheels since airlines will not accept such crates
  • Sturdy construction with no weak points
  • Adequate ventilation
  • Enough space for the animal to turn around
  • Access and room for food and water
  • Access and room for cleaning.

APHIS suggests including an owner’s t-shirt or article of clothing in the crate that may help keep the animal calmer.

Leashes and muzzles of varying sizes can be useful as animals under stressful conditions or with injuries may bite defensively. Strong, sturdy gloves can prevent scratches to humans. Masks worn by humans can hinder the transmission of germs and diseases from humans to animals.

Emergency managers and the local humane society should encourage pet owners and those with service animals to develop a ready kit or go-bag in order to evacuate their animals. In addition to keeping copies of records and a photo of their animal(s) with them, another copy should be placed in the go-kit that, as appropriate, will contain: [86], [87]

  • Proof of vaccination and veterinary records
  • Licenses, rabies, and ID tags
  • Two weeks of food, water, and medications
  • Bedding and toys
  • Litter box, litter, and a scoop
  • Food and water bowls
  • Information on medication and feeding schedules
  • Newspapers, pee pads, cleaning supplies
  • Collars, leashes, muzzles, harnesses
  • First-aid kit
  • A manual can opener and spoons
  • Stakes and a break-proof rope or tie down.


Animal rescue teams and key animal organizations, such as HSUS and ASPCA, will coordinate with the local EMA and transportation agencies to manage the movement of donated pet food and other pet items for storage and dissemination to where animals are being held for reunification. Transportation agencies may be called upon to assist with donated goods, including pet supplies, and they should be prepared with staff and vehicles.

Lessons Learned

The following excerpts from case studies illustrate some experiences with pet evacuation and sheltering in recent disasters. These are provided to aid planners in considering all contingencies and challenges and taking advantage of past experience.

Case Study #1

Citation: Leslie Irvine. 2004. Providing for Pets During Disasters: An Exploratory Study. Quick Response Research Report 171. Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, University of Colorado.

“No plans were in place when Hurricane Andrew hit southeast Florida in 1992. An estimated 1,000 dogs and cats were euthanized merely for lack of space in which to house them. When Hurricane Charley hit the southwest Florida coast in August 2004, it also left many animals, as well as people, homeless. However, in the years since Hurricane Andrew, efforts to inform the public of what to do with animals in a disaster have increased, and national animal welfare organizations have developed emergency response plans.

Since Hurricane Andrew, a network of organizations has developed to meet the needs of animals and animal stakeholders during the relief period of a declared disaster. Through memoranda and statements of understanding with FEMA and the ARC, various agencies have become the designated animal responders following disasters. National veterinary organizations, such as the VMAT of the AVMA, are responsible for medical care. National animal welfare organizations such as the HSUS, the American Humane Association, Code 3 Associates, and Emergency Animal Rescue Services will send their disaster programs to stricken areas at the request of an affected state. Often the labor will be divided (as during Hurricane Charley), with VMAT taking primary responsibility for large animals (livestock) and the HSUS taking responsibility for household pets.

Individual states, too, have developed their own animal response plans. For example, following Hurricane Floyd, in which over three million animals (livestock and household pets) died, the major animal stakeholders in North Carolina developed a cooperative response plan. Labeled SART, for State Animal Response Team, the effort involves a public/private partnership based in a nonprofit organization that can obtain grants, accept donations, and subcontract with government agencies. The SART model uses the Incident Command System found in other emergency response organizations. Once in place, a SART facilitates formation of County Animal Response Teams (CARTs), which can respond to incidents in individual counties or cooperate in multi-county incidents. To date, several states have SART/CART plans, while other states have less formal plans for animal response. Even with a well-developed response network, the animal needs may tax this network of resources when disasters occur in multiple communities at once, as when Florida was hit or threatened by several hurricanes (Jeanne, Charley, Frances, and Ivan) in a span of six weeks in the late summer of 2004.”

Case Study #2

Citation: Irvine, Leslie. 2006. Providing for Pets during Disasters, Part II: Animal Response Volunteers in Gonzales, Louisiana. Quick Response Research Report 187. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center.

“Lamar-Dixon holds numerous equestrian and livestock events, and thus has barns with running water and power. It also has a 300-space RV park (all spaces have electrical hookups), as well as restrooms and showers. It was an ideal site for the animal response.

The HSUS leased five barns for sheltering rescued animals. The barns had roofs and open sides, with five aisles of 20 stalls each. The 10’ x 10’ stalls had three walls and wood shavings on the floors. Three of the five barns were full of dogs. They were all in crates; most were wire, but others were the plastic airline type. The fourth barn housed horses and the fifth was the cat shelter and the veterinary hospital, staffed by the VMATs. In addition, one of the three dog barns had an entire aisle of aggressive dogs; many had obviously been used for fighting. These dogs could not be kenneled with the general population and required skilled handlers.”

[75] PETS P.L. 109-308, 2006

[77] DRS/CRD/USDOJ 2002.

[80] AVMA, 2002.

[81] Humane Society of the United States, “Issues Affecting Our Pets.”

[82] Ibid.

[83] FEMA,IS-111, p. 1-1. New York Times, September 20, 1999.

[84] University of Vermont, Disaster Planning for Livestock .

[87] Virginia Beach SPCA, “An Emergency Plan for your Pet;”  National Organization on Disability, “Disaster Readiness Tips for Owners of Pets or Service Animals.”