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.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and journalist Kim Campbell Thornton, affiliated with Vetstreet.com.