Disaster Planning: Evacuating With Your Cat

A few years ago, I lived in an apartment complex.  I liked it well enough–I was single, so didn’t need much space, and it was near work.  One morning, a few weeks after I moved in, at about 5:30 in the morning, the fire alarms went off.  I had to collect the pets.  The dog was exhilarated.  Snot, the cat, was concerned that we were all going to die and perhaps she should stay under the bed.

Luckily (Unluckily?) a neighbor had come home drunk and started cooking eggs.  When he passed out, the eggs burned and the fire alarm went off.

In the meantime, I spent every fire alarm concerned that this was a “real one” and my home would burn down.  So I began preparing to truly evacuate with my pets.  Evacuating with a dog differs greatly from evacuating with a cat.  Dogs see adventure, cats see disaster.  I developed a few tips for evacuating your cat, both capturing the beast at home as well as travelling with her.

Prep to Catch Her

Cats hate change.  If your cat hears loud sirens, or general panic in the home, or even just gets the whiff of “something is up,” she’s going to hide.  Unlike dogs, cats typically do not look to their humans for protection or safety in an emergency.  My cat, sweet as she was normally, would hide under the bed and then refuse to come back out.  She also would react defensively if I tried to remove her.

Before a disaster and evacuation, (or vet visit) find her hideouts.  Make it impossible for her to barricade herself in these places.  If she hides under the bed, put cardboard boxes full of old books in the middle, so that she can still hide–but you can reach her.  If she hides in a closet, make sure you can shut the door.  Let her have her hideouts, because she needs them for every day things, but make sure that if you really need to catch her, you can reach her.

Pre-Train Your Cat

In the meantime, teach her that she can trust you.  You do this two main ways:

  • Your cat can always walk away from you.  If the matter is not life-or-death, let her walk away.  Don’t catch your cat to punish her.  Use a spray bottle or shakers to startle her, but don’t hit her, don’t catch her, and don’t hold her as punishment.  In an emergency, she will try to escape you instead of trust you.  She needs to understand that you will never force her to do something–so she will never expect you to force her to do something.
  • Do not remove her from her hideouts.  If she takes medication, find a way to get her to leave the hideout.  Don’t allow any guests in your home to bother her in her safe places.  If she doesn’t feel safe, she’ll find a new spot–and then how will you find her in an emergency?  She should never feel threatened, by anyone, in her safe spots.  In an evacuation, you will count on the element of surprise to catch her.

The Evacuation

The situation arose.  Maybe your house is on fire, maybe the storm approaches.  You have decided: your family is evacuating.  Before you begin collecting supplies, capture your cats.  They cooperate best before you’ve started shaking up their world.

Gather your carriers, and visit your cats in their hideouts.  Hopefully, you can simply pick them up and put them in the carrier.  If they resist, or already know that something’s up, firmly but carefully grab them by the scruff of the neck.  They may claw you.  Do not lift them by the scruff except to get them in the carrier.  Support their weight with a hand on the rump.

You should never handle your cat this firmly except in an emergency.  The more often your scruff your cat, the less control the scruff gives you.  If your cat has never been carried this way, they will not fight.  If you use this method regularly, they know how to fight your hand.

Only place one cat in each carrier.  You can not afford to let one loose.  Once they escape, they avoid capture well, and you may end up leaving them behind.  Don’t risk it–keep one carrier for each cat.  You can combine them later.

Place the carriers in your vehicle, and shut all doors and windows.  Never open carriers unless the car is completely closed, and never open the car unless the cats are securely in their carriers.  Add a small towel to each carrier, because they may urinate, defecate, or vomit before you can release them.  Don’t allow your children to bother them in the carriers as they can be dangerous.

Cat Hammock Wall Mounted Cat Bed

Evacuating In the Car

Offer water every hour.  If your cats remain calm and get along, you can combine them into a larger dog crate.  Provide a small litter box, beds, and water.  If your cats must remain in smaller carriers, offer a litter box every time you stop your car for yourself to use the toilet, and clean their carrier of any messes they created.  Offer food as frequently as at home.

Keep the car cool.  Don’t leave your cats in a hot car while you eat or use the restroom.  Practice the same safety tips that you would use with dogs.

Hotels & Motels

If your family stays in a hotel or motel, or even with friends or family, keep your pets safe there as well.  Check that the available space does not allow your cats to get under furniture where you can’t reach.  If your cat barricades herself under a hotel bed, she won’t come out easily.  Block that space the same as you did at home.

Always cage your pets when you leave your hotel room.  A maid could easily let your cat loose in the hotel, and if you stay at a motel with exterior doors on each room, your cat could escape between your own feet, and into a strange city.

If possible, allow your pet to wander the space.  They feel more secure when they’ve explored a space.  They prefer to stay near you, and may curl up on the bed.

If you stay with friends or family, do not introduce your pet to their pets until your pet is calm and settled into a room.  Strange cats under stress will fight and cause major injuries, and people could get hurt trying to break them up.

If your cat still acts very stressed, a product like Feliway could help her calm down.

Have you ever evacuated your home?

I’ve never evacuated more than a few hours, but if you’ve ever evacuated, is there anything you wish you had known ahead of time?

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