Animal Welfare

Pets Also Victims in a Disaster Like Last Weekend's Tornadoes

Pets lost or terrified in a tornado are way down the list of urgent concerns when multiple human deaths and casualties occur, but pets are still somewhere on that list. The fact is that animals run, hide, get injured and often get lost in a severe weather event. Sooner or later their fates become important to somebody.

“Especially after a deadly tornado or any type of storm or flooding, there are more animals than normal in need of assistance,” Maura Davies of the SPCA of Texas told me Monday after multiple tornadoes ripped the Dallas area over the weekend. 

Davies said the increase in the number of lost pets showing up in animal control pounds coincides with a tendency for pet-owners to be slower about looking for them — a lesson that was learned the hard way, she said, in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.

“Something that the animal welfare world learned a lot about, very, very sadly, in the aftermath of Katrina, was how important it is to give people enough time to find their pets. Often after these disasters people are in a state of shock. It takes them a while to figure out where things are, and even sometimes it takes a little while for pets to surface.”

Davies gave me some small comfort about it: While she said she couldn’t speak for any particular agency, her experience has been that most animal control agencies hold on to animals longer before euthanizing them after a severe weather event.

To help toward that end, the SPCA of Texas has contacted animal control agencies where tornadoes struck last Saturday and offered to take off their hands the animals they already had on hand before the storm — the ones that won’t be sought by storm-victim owners — to make room for the animals lost in the storms.

The place to look first for a storm-lost pet is always the local pound, she said.

It feels a little wrong somehow to worry too much about pets when human lives have been lost. But we happen to have two dogs at our house that must have worried each other into a shared state of extreme storm phobia somehow, and I do worry about what they might do if our house were torn down by a storm. They weren’t this way when we adopted them three years ago.

I don’t think my wife and I are storm-phobic ourselves — they didn’t get it from us — except that we do go to what we hope is a safe place at the center of the house if the sirens are going off and Pete Delkus tells us the end is nigh.

One dog, Dorothy the Texas cow dog, now runs downstairs and gets into the pantry ahead of us. But the other one, Penny the part-terrier mutt, jumps under our bed with only a nervously twitching tail sticking out before Delkus even knows the storm is coming.

Amanda Florsheim, an animal behaviorist with offices in Carrollton, told me science doesn’t really know the mechanism by which dogs sense the approach of violent weather, although some of the research points strongly toward a sensitivity to atmospheric changes. She said some dogs have much stronger reactions to storms than mine — so strong they need medication before any sort of slower, gentler process of behavior modification can be tried.

“I have actually found dogs running along the road during storms who were lost because they broke out of a house or escaped a backyard,” she said.

“I saw a patient a long time ago who jumped out of a third-story window because of a storm, landed into a tree and then into a bush and was relatively OK, amazingly.”

Some dogs are not as lucky as that one, she said: “I have had patients break out of crates and damage their legs. I had one who belonged to a trainer who popped her hip out of socket breaking out of a crate during a storm, so they can be a big threat to themselves because they are so anxious and uncontrollable.”

Those dogs need medication to get them under control. Later, under quieter circumstances, they may respond to a regimen of behavior modification, usually slowly exposing them to storm noises in hopes they can be trained out of their more extreme responses.

I asked Florsheim about cats. She said she happens to be the keeper of a storm-phobic cat. But the thing about cats, she said, is that a storm-phobic cat often tends to creep off and hide somewhere quietly so that owners may not even notice anything amiss. Even in the throes of fear, cats take care of themselves, while dogs make a public display of everything they feel.

Any hiding animal may become a lost animal in a scene of extreme devastation like what took place in the storm-targeted parts of this area last weekend. Later, as Davies of the SPCA told me, those animals may emerge and find rubble where their homes once stood. Then they are dependent on the patience, the persistence and the caring hearts of human beings in order to find their ways home again.