The question of whether the needs of animals are just as important as those of people during times of disaster is a non-starter for me. The truth is, there aren't many people who, given the choice of pulling an infant or a kitten out of raging floodwaters, wouldn't wish the kitten good luck in the next life while reaching for the baby.
The problem with the "animals vs. people" debate heard after any sort of disaster is that it misses the point. For all the many reasons why animals need to be taken care of as part of disaster planning and rescue operations, perhaps the most compelling is this one:
If you don't plan for pets, people will die.
That's because in disaster after disaster it has been proven that the strength of the human-animal bond is such that if animals have to be left behind, there are plenty of people who will stay and fight for their pets' survival along with their own.
I'm one of those people. My animals are family, and I would not abandon them to an uncertain fate. While doing so apparently makes sense to some -- the tales from hurricane country of already-neglected dogs drowning on their backyard chains are so common now as to be mind-numbing -- I could not live with myself knowing I'd abandoned an animal who had done nothing wrong but trust that I'd take care of him.
It's not that I'm planning to die with my animals -- far from it.
I've lived in a house 100 yards from the Gulf of Mexico and in other areas at risk for every possible calamity, from wildfires to earthquakes to floods. And in every place I've lived I've been prepared to leave on short notice, and to take my pets with me.
But the fact remains that any crisis will catch many people unprepared and in need, and we need to do what it takes to help. Helping means changing long-standing disaster-relief policies to include pets so people will leave their homes when they need to.
The Red Cross cites aggression, allergies and fear of animals as reasons why its shelters do not accommodate pets. And it's true: These are valid reasons why animals shouldn't be accepted in all shelters, or thrown loose into any shelter already jammed with human evacuees. But anyone who says there aren't viable options is looking for an excuse, not a solution.
In fact, there are ways for people and their pets to be kept safe. Select shelters in any given area could be safely set up for people with pets, or shelters for people could be paired with adjacent ones for pets, the latter staffed by those with experience in handling stressed or frightened animals.
This is not new ground, and more change is coming. Several counties in Florida now have plans to have at least one shelter prepared to accept pets in a disaster. And the outcry over the handling of pets during Hurricane Katrina led to officials allowing people to bring their pets on evacuation buses leaving coastal Texas in advance of Hurricane Rita.
I hope the trend continues. Because when people return home to put their lives back together, they know that their homes will be empty without their pets in them.
Families need to stay together, no matter what.
Putting on the pressure
Changing disaster policies for people with pets is a matter of pressuring decision-makers in both the public-policy and charitable arenas.
At the federal level, pet-lovers can communicate to their elected representatives their support of the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act. The PETS Act will mandate that state and local officials include how they will accommodate households with pets or service animals when presenting disaster plans in search of federal funding. Pet-lovers have to be active as well on a more local level. Find out if your state and local disaster plans include pets, and if they don't, push to get them changed.
The Red Cross has so far been resolute in its insistence that pets have no place in its shelters. As previously mentioned here, a grassroots movement dubbed "The Snowball Effect" (www.veterinarypartner.com/snowball) -- after the little dog forcibly separated from his young owner during Hurricane Katrina -- is asking people to contact the Red Cross to ask both the national organization and its local chapters to re-evaluate this stand and to make plans to accommodate people with pets in select shelters.
Finally, don't forget to make sure your own family has a crisis plan that includes your pets.
Mikey's family wants him back
Q. Our cat Mikey loved going down the street to our small-town deer lodge on the weekends when they would have their all-day outdoor barbecue. He would mingle until the owner would call me to pick him up, or he would meander home on his own.
Last January he never came home. I kept searching the Web site of our local shelter for new arrivals and finally there was Mikey. I e-mailed the director and informed her that Mikey had a family and a license that was always on him, but she said he had been brought in without his collar or tag.
I immediately requested they make a note that he was not to be adopted out. The director sent me an e-mail back giving me the day to come to pick Mikey up. I arrived on that date at approximately 6 p.m., and I was informed that Mikey had been adopted out that same day at 3 p.m. She'd said I could get there by 7 p.m.
The shelter will not give me any information on who adopted him. The director she says she has tried to contact the people three times. The first two times she got no response, and the third was their refusal to return Mikey to us. What can I do about this? -- K.H., via e-mail
A. Nine months later, I'm thinking not much. If you had immediately raised a big stink, perhaps engaged an attorney and talked to your local media back when Mikey was adopted out, you might have gotten somewhere, since you had an e-mail from the director of animal control for your town confirming that the agency was aware Mikey belonged to someone and giving you a date and time for picking him up. Now, I'm not sure even that will help you, since many months have passed.
I cannot tell you how many times people have written to me in similar situations. They've checked in with the local shelter after an animal has gone missing only to discover their pet has either been adopted out or euthanized after the legally mandated hold period for strays has run its course. In many such cases, the shelter had played it by the book, and what happened to the animal was completely within the law.
There's no hope for an animal who has been put down, of course, but sometimes the people who adopt in such circumstances are willing to return the pet to the original family. It's the decent thing to do, certainly, but it's much easier on the new family if the request comes in early, before they fall in love with their new pet.
I'm very sorry. It seems you've lost a wonderful pet. Others can learn from your loss, with two important lessons to note.
The first: Don't delay in looking for a lost pet, or in reclaiming one. Many people assume an animal will wander home within a few days. In that same time period, however, a pet could have been taken to the shelter and stayed long enough to be legally made available for adoption or euthanized. If you lose a pet, go in person to the shelters in your area immediately, and keep checking every couple of days.
The second: What happened to Mikey is the kind of thing that happens all the time to free-roaming cats. They end up in shelters, get hit by cars, shot, poisoned, trapped or mauled by dogs or coyotes. The life of a free-roaming cat is perilous and often short.
If you ever do get Mikey back -- and odds at this point frankly aren't good -- please consider ending his wandering days and coverting him to an indoor life where he won't be at such risk again.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
Rabies a risk in cats, too
Most cases of rabies in the United States occur in wild animals. Because free-roaming cats often share space with wild animals, they are at risk of being bitten.
The risk of contracting the virus from your cat -- or any cat -- is extremely small, but rabies is so deadly that if your cat were to contract it, he would need to be euthanized, and you might need to have a series of inoculations to save your life.
The seriousness of rabies is why vaccinations are recommended -- and in many places, legally mandated -- for cats as well as dogs.
If your cat tangles with a wild animal but is current on his rabies vaccination, he'll need to be quarantined. If he's not vaccinated, public-health officials may require that he be killed. That's because the only way to tell for certain whether an animal is rabid is to test the tissues of the brain.
Be sure your pet is vaccinated against this deadly, contagious disease -- for his protection, and for yours.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
Feline grooming follows a routine
Kittens are groomed by their mothers for the first few weeks of their lives, but by the third week, they start grooming themselves as all cats do, in a very particular order, licking carefully and nibbling free any mats or dirt along the way.
When a cat sits down to groom, he starts by licking his lips and then wetting the side of his paw, rubbing the damp paw over the side of his face; then he repeats the same sequence of motions on the other side.
After a cat's satisfied that his face is clean, he will lick his front legs, shoulder and side, and then hike first one hind leg straight up and then the other in the position cat lovers know so well. The cat will then finish the process by licking his tail clean, starting at the base and working to the end.
Many cats can keep up with their grooming on their own, but others need some help from time to time. Reasons to help your cat with grooming (with regular bathing, combing and brushing) include:
-- Keeping allergies at bay. Regular bathing, or even rinsing with water, can help reduce allergy symptoms in people.
-- Reducing shedding. The fur you can catch on a comb or a brush isn't going to end up on furniture or clothing.
-- Improving general hygiene. On occasion some cats may get into something they can't clean off without your help, like pine or road tar. And sometimes when cats get older, they're not limber enough to keep themselves clean without your help.
A cat who suddenly loses interest in grooming may be ill. As always, when you observe behavioral changes, schedule a trip to the veterinarian to see if a medical problem is the root cause.
Pets need to be provided for in wills.
We don't like to plan for our own deaths, but it's something that needs to be done.
We've been conditioned to think about making arrangements for any children still young enough to need care and possibly for other family members as well. Our belongings have places they're supposed to go.
But most of us haven't given a moment's thought to what would happen to our pets if something should happen to us. And yet, our pets are counting on us to do so.
How can you ensure that your pets will be well cared for if something happens to you?
You can't leave money directly to your pet because, in the eyes of the law, an animal is a piece of property with little more legal status than a chair. Instead, you must leave your pet (and money to take care of the animal, if you can) to a friend, relative or organization that will look out for your pet's interests.
Consider, too, short-term arrangements for your pet so the animal will be cared for if you're suddenly hospitalized, or in the period before your death and the finalization of your estate.
While you should formalize any arrangements with the help of an attorney, it's essential to discuss your plans with the person you've chosen to handle your affairs, and with anyone you hope will adopt your pet. You might assume a friend or family member will adopt your pet, but that same person, no matter how well-meaning, may not be prepared for the responsibility and might quickly drop off the animal at the nearest shelter.
The Web site of the Association of the Bar of New York City (www.abcny.org/Publications/pub-provforpet.htm) offers information on providing for your pet after your death. Although the information specifically applies to New York state law, it's broad enough to outline all the options for you and your attorney to consider.
BY THE NUMBERS
How big's your bag?
Buying in bulk is a time-honored strategy when it comes to making the pet-supply budget go further, and one that's quite popular with dog-lovers, especially those with big dogs. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, here's how bag sizes for dry dog food rank in popularity at the cash register:
5 pounds or less: 10 percent
6-10 pounds: 13 percent
11-20 pounds: 22 percent
20-40 pounds: 26 percent
40-plus pounds: 23 percent
Don't buy dry: 3 percent
No answer: 3 percent
Consider fur when adopting
If you're thinking of adding a cat or kitten, give some thought to fur length and the added challenges a longhaired cat presents.
Almost all cats shed, but the difference in shedding levels between short- and longhaired cats can be dramatic, especially in cats that are prized for the volume of silky coat, such as Persians. If you're on the low end of fur tolerance, you'd better stick with shorthaired cats.
Longhaired cats mat easily and need to be combed and brushed frequently. Consider, too, that their urine and feces can get caught in their coats, and litter may catch on the tufts of fur in their paws and get tracked all over the house.
For people who love longhaired cats, it's well worth the extra effort. But if you're not such a person, stick to shorthaired pets when considering adoption.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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