Prepare for pets in emergency situations

Last week, a Canadian woman died when she went back into her burning house to rescue her pets. All but two of them – some of which she was pet-sitting – also died in the blaze. It was a tragic story.

It also illustrates how important it is to be prepared for an emergency. You may not be able to save your companion animals, but planning for what to do under such circumstances may make enough of a difference that you can save some or all of your pets.

  • Make sure that you have evacuation routes for each bedroom. All the humans in the house should be able to get out if there is a fire. Pets should not be a priority over human lives – make sure you can get out safely. And never, ever return to a burning building to rescue a pet. Instead, take your pets with you when you exit, if is reasonable to do so.
  • Have leashes and carriers in an easily accessible location – not in the basement or under a pile in the garage. You don’t want to take a second longer than you have to in an emergency. A reachable shelf in a laundry room or the linen closet may be good, easy-to-access locations. Keep a couple cans of food and bottled water, along with any medications your pet takes regularly, inside the carrier or next to the leash. Tape a card with your name and number, an emergency contact outside your home, and your vet’s name and number inside the carrier or attach it to the leash.
  • Teach your pets an emergency command. For dogs, this can be as easy as “Come, Fido!” For cats, you may have to be more creative. Ever had a cat that came running if you shook a can of kitty treats or ran the can opener? Encourage that behavior, as it may make your cat come out from hiding when you need to get it quickly.
  • Plan an emergency fire drill that includes your pets. See just how long it would take to get your pets gathered, calmed and out of the house, then work on reducing that time. Give your pets plenty of treats to make the experience as pleasurable as possible for them. After all, you want them to be willing to repeat the procedure in an actual emergency.
    Remember, adults should be the ones to gather the pets and supplies. Children may not be able to make a decision about whether they have time to do so and may put themselves at risk trying to reach a pet. Make sure your kids know that in case of a fire, they need to exit immediately.
  • Put identification on your pets, even those that are indoor only. It is in just this kind of situation where your indoor cat can run off in a panic. Ideally, you would have both a collar and tag with your phone number and an emergency contact phone number, and a microchip. Microchips are tiny plastic pieces that carry a bar code and can be inserted under the skin of an animal. If separated from the owner, a vet or shelter can use a scanner to check for the presence of a chip.
  • Mark your home as having pets inside. There are reflective stickers available commercially that you can paste on entry doors or nearby windows indicating what kind and how many pets live in the home. This enables firefighters to know what animals to search for. Such decals are available at, among other places online.

One note: Please understand that firefighters have an obligation to protect humans. They are not required to go into burning buildings after animals or perform first aid on pets. Most firefighters care deeply about animals and will do what they can to help your pets, but that will be a priority only after they have taken care of the needs of all humans present and controlled the fire.

If you all get out of the building all right, but are concerned about the health of your animal, ask a neighbor to take the pet to an emergency clinic for treatment of smoke inhalation, stress or related injuries. Never demand that paramedics or other other human health professionals provide care for your pet – they may be able and willing to do so, but it is not their responsibility. Understanding this if you are ever in this situation will help you act calmly and make arrangements for your pet to get quick veterinary treatment.

As wonderful as pets are, and as attached as we get to them, they should not take priority over human life in an emergency. By planning for an emergency, both you and your pets have a better chance of escaping unharmed. But you should not risk your life to save your pet – like the woman in Canada, you might not make it back out.