Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

High Pressure

Dogs, cats and even reptiles can react negatively to the stress of going through or evacuating from a natural disaster

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Nicole Morrison’s four Cavalier King Charles spaniels were quieter than normal on the Monday morning that Morrison and her friends rushed around packing their vehicles for evacuation from Hurricane Harvey in Houston. The spaniels weren’t allowed to go out in the yard to potty because water was already rising.

“They knew something was very, very wrong,” Morrison says.

The next month, Jackie O’Neil of Marathon, Florida, faced a similar situation as she and her husband, Tom, loaded their Jeep Cherokee with an assortment of land tortoises, freshwater turtles, and Pal, a 12-year-old ball python. The expected storm surge from Hurricane Irma could have killed the freshwater reptiles, O’Neil says, but the critters weren’t happy.

“Reptiles hate change,” she says.

Pets who experience an evacuation, superstorm or other natural disaster may undergo behavior changes caused by stress, anxiety and fear. It’s not unusual for pets in these situations to break house-training, stop using the litter box, vocalize more than normal, hide or behave aggressively, even if they have been reunited with their family. They may pant, pace or lose weight.

“Pets under stress have a different chemical environment in their bodies and brains than relaxed ones do,” says Fear Free-certified veterinarian Kathryn Primm of Applebrook Animal Hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “Stress increases cortisol and other chemicals that tell the body to switch into fight-or-flight mode. Animals who are normally very bonded to their people can escape and be lost. One should never depend on the pet to act normally in an evacuation situation.”

Morrison and her dogs retreated to a ranch owned by friends. Her three older dogs had visited the ranch before, so they settled in nicely.

“The puppy was very confused for the first 36 hours or so,” Morrison says. “It was the first time she had been in the car for nearly three hours, and I later discovered she had puked up her breakfast in her crate. It was also the first time she had been separated from her littermate sister, so she was very anxious.”

Your response can determine how well your pet survives and thrives emotionally during and after a disaster. The following tips will help you and your pets decompress and get back to normal.

--Whether you’re in a hotel, shelter or friend’s home, try to set up a small space where your pet can feel secure, such as a crate or bathroom.

--Give the safe space a familiar scent and appearance with a favorite toy or an item of clothing you’ve worn. Muffle new odors with species-specific pheromone sprays.

--Reduce stress with interactive play such as games of fetch or batting at a fishing-pole toy.

--As much as possible, keep mealtime, walks and other routines on their normal schedule.

--Pets such as reptiles may need to adjust to a different climate. The O’Neils, who evacuated to their daughter’s home in Atlanta, found that the cooler weather there slowed down their reptiles, already slightly stressed from travel and confinement.

--Avoid showering pets with excessive amounts of attention, even if you’ve just been reunited with them. Extreme amounts of “togetherness” may trigger separation anxiety when things get back to normal.

--For pets who continue to have behavior issues after you’ve returned home or set up house in a new place, schedule a veterinary visit to rule out any physical problems that could be causing the change in behavior. If they get a clean bill of health, begin retraining as if the animal were a puppy or kitten to help them regain normal skills and behaviors.


Why does cat

mark in home?

Q: My cat is spraying in the house. It feels like he's trying to protect us from the other cats, and occasionally coyotes, that come into our yard. If we keep him inside all the time, he gets antsy and will spray. When we let him out, he does fine much of the time, but then cats come into the yard and they fight. He is 9 or 10 years old and is neutered. Any advice? -- via email

A: Spraying, or territorial marking, is a feline form of communication. It’s most common in unneutered cats, but any cat is capable of spraying, including neutered males. Cats deliver messages to each other with their stinky pee; your cat may be attempting to ward off other cats and coyotes from his territory -- your yard and home.

Your cat may also be marking space inside the home to help himself feel more secure. Making your home smell more like himself helps to relieve stress that may occur when he sees, hears or smells other cats or predators, such as coyotes in his yard. If your cat is spraying items that carry your scent, such as clothing or bedding, or items where you spend a lot of time, such as a favorite chair or sofa, he’s doubling down on that feeling of security. Combining his scent with yours is a way of increasing his feeling of comfort.

Ways to improve the situation include changing the environment, instituting a behavior modification plan or administering pheromones or medications to help decrease anxiety. Try blocking your cat’s view of the animals outdoors. Eliminate odor from previous marking episodes by thoroughly cleaning the area with an enzymatic product. Feline pheromone diffusers or sprays can increase his comfort level as well. A Fear Free-certified veterinarian can help you with a behavior modification or medication plan. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker

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Hotel cat retires

from the suite life

--Matilda the regal Ragdoll has retired after six years as the “directfurr of guest relations” at the landmark Algonquin Hotel in New York, reports journalist Sandy Robins. The hotel has had a resident feline since the 1920s; Matilda was the 11th hotel cat and the third named Matilda. Forbes labeled her the Million Dollar Cat, crediting her “marketing skills” for earning more than $1 million for the oldest operating hotel in New York City. Matilda’s famous charity cat fashion shows raised thousands of dollars for the benefit of local animal shelters and rescue organizations. Rosemary Kenigsberg, a regular guest at the hotel, adopted Matilda, who has traded people-watching from her cat tree on 44th Street to watching deer, squirrels and other wildlife from her new home.

--Using dogs trained to detect the scat of jaguars, pumas, bush dogs and other endangered carnivores, researchers are helping to identify the best locales for habitat connection corridors in Argentina. Knowing the areas that the animals typically hunt, sleep and travel through allows scientists to plot safe paths for them across public and private wildlife reserves, privately owned plantations, farms and pastures, and along roads and pathways, while still meeting the needs of private landowners.

--When we look into a mirror, we know we’re seeing our reflection. But is the same true of our dogs? While they might not pass a mirror test, an alternative sniff test -- sort of an “olfactory mirror” -- found that dogs do indeed have self-cognition. The research, conducted by the Barnard College Department of Psychology and published last month in the journal “Behavioural Processes,” confirmed previous evidence from Dr. Roberto Cazzolla Gatti showing that “dogs distinguish between the olfactory ‘image’ of themselves when modified,” investigating their own odor for longer periods when it is accompanied by an additional odor. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.