Are your animal companions prepared for disaster?

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On May 2, a volcano near Chaiten in Chile erupted for the first time in thousands of years, forcing the entire town to quickly evacuate as ash rained down. The next day, cyclone Nargis made landfall in Myanmar, where the death toll is feared to be near 134,000. Barely a week later, deadly tornadoes ripped through Oklahoma, Missouri and Georgia over Mother’s Day weekend, killing 22 people; more killer tornadoes hit the U.S. over Memorial Day weekend, making 2008 the deadliest tornado season in a decade.

Katrina dog

As the recent terrifying string of disasters shows, emergencies can strike anytime and anywhere. With the Atlantic hurricane season officially starting on June 1, and peak tornado season in the U.S. running through mid-summer, it’s vital to make emergency plans now to protect all members of our families, including our animals.

Whatever you do, avoid leaving your animals behind in an evacuation. Even if your home isn’t damaged, downed power lines and impassable roads may prevent you from returning home for weeks, leaving animals stranded without food or water.

In Chaiten, an estimated 450 dogs and 350 cats were left behind when residents were evacuated, and their distraught guardians have been prevented from returning to feed them. And who could forget the images of terrified and dehydrated dogs and cats stranded on rooftops, clinging to trees and frantically treading water after Hurricane Katrina-or the brave people who chose to stay behind and risk their lives rather than evacuate without their beloved companions?

PETA’s teams of trained animal-emergency staffers spent two weeks breaking down doors, crawling through filth, wading through noxious floodwaters and coaxing more than 300 terrified animals to safety after Katrina. But for many animals, rescue came too late. At one home, our team found the rotting remains of a pit bull locked inside a cage on the kitchen table without any food or water.

Please don’t let your animals end up like this. Check with hotels (many waive no-animals policies during emergencies), relatives and friends to see if you and your animals can stay there until the emergency is over. Even if you have to camp or sleep in your car temporarily, your animals are still better off with you than left in an empty house.

Make sure your animals are up-to-date on their rabies vaccinations and are wearing collars with identification tags, and remember to pack leashes, bowls, towels, blankets, litter pans and litter and at least a week’s supply of food and medications.

If you have no choice but to leave your animal companions behind, do everything you can to ensure their survival. Leave them inside the house, with access to upper floors and at least 10 days’ supply of dry food and water. Fill multiple sinks, bowls, pans and Tupperware containers with water. Place signs in your windows and on your front door indicating how many and what kind of animals are inside-rescue teams may be able to save them if conditions prevent you from returning.

Making preparations now could save your animals’ lives in the future if the worst does happen. TVs, couches and even homes are replaceable, but best friends aren’t.