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A dog and cat snuggle

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By: Meredith Stepita, DVM, Dipl. ACVB

As we have seen with disasters in recent years, people sometimes do not leave a disaster area when urged to do so because they do not want to leave their pet. This is why we need to have a pet evacuation plan in conjunction with our fire safety plan.

A wall mounted fire alarm

How can we expect our pets to react when the alarm goes off?

Pets will vary with their response to smoke alarms, but most will be at least scared, if not phobic of the noise. Pets with noise phobia may pant, pace, shake, hide, salivate, follow their owners, and even harm themselves trying to escape from confinement. Often their ears are back and tail tucked between their legs. Note: if your dog has a noise phobia, please contact a Veterinary Behaviorist for a customized treatment plan.

A firefighter holding a dog

How might our pets react when they smell smoke or see firefighters?

Just as in people, smoke irritates the lungs of pets. Panting may indicate their compromised ability to breathe. They may react with fear (see signs for noise phobia above) in response to the sight of fire, smell of smoke, and upon encountering firefighters coming near them wearing masks and oxygen tanks. You can prepare your pets for firefighters by dressing up in heavy rain jackets and using a Tupperware container as an oxygen mask. Another person can ask your pet for commands (if they know any) and reward the pet with a favorite treat while you approach in your costume. You can also feed your dog treats while wearing the costume. If your dog is nervous when you practice this, it is recommended to seek the help of a Veterinary Behaviorist.

Ellie, a mixed breed dog, wears a therapy vest

How can we keep our animals calm while all these things are happening?

Have an emergency kit for your dog! In this kit have a special mat, a tight fitting t-shirt, pheromones, lavender oil, a bandana, and possibly anti-anxiety medication prescribed by your veterinarian if your pet has a severe phobia. 

Teach your dog to relax on the mat by increasing the amount of time he/she is required to stay on the mat while remaining calm. That way your dog associates the mat with calm behavior and when given the mat during a stressful situation they can relax more easily. Some pets relax when wearing a tight fitting t-shirt, called an anxiety wrap. Pheromones as well as lavender (applied to a bandana) have also been shown to decrease anxiety in some pets. It is always best to try these potential anxiety reducing tools before faced with a stressful situation to determine if it may help them.

Remember that fearful animals may become aggressive when cornered and can't escape, so always take caution in approaching animals when they are scared.

Dr. Stepita is a veterinarian specializing in pet behavior at East Bay Veterinary Specialists in Walnut Creek, CA. Her mission is to help dedicated owners work through behavioral problems with their pets and potentially save pets from being relinquished to shelters.