If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you may be aware of the massive wildfire that is burning just a few miles west of my home town, Fort Collins, CO. As of this writing,  248 homes are confirmed to have been destroyed and one person has died.

Displaced residents are staying with friends, family, in hotels, or at the evacuation center at a local event complex. Facilities for pets and livestock are available there, but many animals are being taken care of by the local humane society, veterinary hospitals, and good samaritans. The fire, which was started by lightning more than a week ago, will keep many people away from their homes — assuming they’re still standing — for the foreseeable future.

Wildfires are a fact of life out this way, but every region has its own types of natural disasters to deal with, to say nothing of catastrophes caused by people. So whether your area is at risk of fire, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, blizzards, or floods, I ask, "Are you prepared in case of emergency, and do your plans include your animals?"

In some cases, you may have to seek shelter in your own home. The "three day" rule touted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security applies to pets as well as people. Basically, we should all be prepared to take care of ourselves and our loved ones for at least three days in the event of an emergency. To this effect, never have less than a three day supply of food and water on hand for all of your animals. I recommend an even bigger buffer for any essential medications that your pet might take, as they could be hard to come by in the chaos that follows many disasters. Keep a first aid kit well stocked with items that can be used for people and animals.

If you have to evacuate, do your best to take your animals with you. Leaving them behind puts them in great danger. If you are told to have a bag packed in case of evacuation, put one together for your pets, too.

Your pet evacuation bag should include:

  • A few days worth of food
  • Water
  • Bowls or buckets for food and drink
  • An ample supply of medications
  • For cats — a portable litter box (a rectangular baking pan will do in a pinch) and some litter
  • Leashes, collars, halters, lead ropes
  • Carriers for everyone

Put a checklist together now so you’ll remember what you need in the heat of the moment. While you are at it, figure out a few places you could go that will welcome both you and your pets. If you don’t have the ability to transport your animals, try to make advance arrangements with someone who can help.

Identification is critical in case you become separated from your pets. Update your contact information with your pet’s microchip manufacturer, on identification tags, and with municipal licensing organizations. Also, keep pictures of you with all of your pets in a safe location as additional proof of ownership.

Have a plan, be informed, and be ready — your pets are depending on you.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: all dogged up by bunchofpants / via Flickr

Also see petMD’s Top 10, Pet Emergency Kit for Natural Disasters