09/06/2011 06:24 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2011

Things We Have Learned From Irene, Joplin and Other Disasters

As Vermont floodwaters rose to historic and dangerous levels following a pounding by Hurricane Irene, Kevin Putnam evacuated his parents from their home and then swam through their backyard so that he could save their 15-year-old cat, Sophie. He would not leave her behind.

Thankfully, not every story relating to pet evacuation from natural or man-made disasters is so dramatic. Nevertheless, most animal lovers share Mr. Putnam's conviction that pets should not be left behind. An independent national poll commissioned by the ASPCA found that an overwhelming majority (85 percent of dog owners and 81 percent of cat owners) of those polled would take their pets with them in the event of an evacuation.

Even though most pet owners would take their animals with them if they had to evacuate, the same poll found that 35 percent of cat and dog owners do not have a disaster preparedness plan in place. Interestingly, the results vary by region. Nearly one-half of dog owners (45 percent) and cat owners (42 percent) in the Northeast do not know what they would do with their pets in an evacuation, in contrast to a significantly smaller percentage of pet owners in the South where only 28 percent of dog owners and 30 percent of cat owners do not have a plan.

The regional differences in disaster preparedness make sense when you consider the frequency of natural disasters that impact the South versus the Northeast. The problem, however, is that it only takes one disaster to uproot a family. Disasters may have nothing to do with the weather -- families may have to evacuate due to a fire in their home, a terrorist attack, or a host of other reasons.

September is National Preparedness Month, so now is a good time to evaluate your readiness to cope with a disaster of any type. The importance of planning ahead is evident from recent events (Hurricane Irene) and recent and upcoming reminders of previous ones (the 6th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the 10th anniversary of September 11). This year alone, the ASPCA has assisted more than 18,500 animals in communities throughout the Midwest and South that were severely affected by tornadoes, flooding and storms, and we estimate that more than 600,000 cats and dogs have been affected by natural disasters nationwide.

You can find a detailed checklist to help you craft your own disaster preparedness plan on the ASPCA's website at . But since the ASPCA has gleaned a great deal of knowledge from our national disaster response efforts, I'd like to expound on how to prevent a few problems from occurring that we encounter time after time when we are called in to assist.

First, it is imperative that you microchip your dogs and cats. The ASPCA's poll found that only 28 percent of dog owners and 24 percent of cat owners said that their animals had been microchipped. Sometimes you won't have a warning before you evacuate, so microchips (along with ID tags) can be the only tool rescuers have to reunite you with your missing pet. Microchipping your pet is generally inexpensive -- most veterinarians charge $50 or less, and some animal shelters and rescue organizations will provide the service for free.

Not every storm is like Hurricane Irene where we had notice that the storm was on the way so we could set up housing for animals at emergency evacuation centers throughout New York City. Residents in Joplin, Missouri had no such warning when a tornado pillaged the community earlier this year.

What we found in Joplin when we were working on disaster response there is that many, if not most, pet owners took their pets with them when they evacuated their homes. But plenty of animals were homeless, and we rescued animals from streets who had escaped from their homes or yards when the tornado struck.

In Joplin, we scanned every animal we found for a microchip, but were disheartened to find that very few animals had them. We also found that many of the owners of the microchipped animals had not updated their contact information with the microchip registry or that they had only provided their home phone numbers -- non-working numbers for residences that had been destroyed in the tornado.

Besides their usefulness in disaster situations, microchips are invaluable in other scenarios. Many lost animals have been reunited with their owners (sometimes years later) due to the tiny microchip that allowed that animal to be tracked. With the rise in pet theft, microchipped animals are more likely to be recovered when the stolen animal is taken in for a vet check. And most importantly, microchipped animals are much less likely to be accidentally euthanized by a shelter that does not believe that the animal has a home.

Please plan ahead and have a disaster plan in place -- identify several people outside your region who can care for your pets in the event you cannot; keep an emergency kit containing supplies for your pet (don't forget to take any medicines they are on); and have your pet microchipped and provide the registrar with alternate phone numbers, including your cell phone number. Most importantly, always take your pets with you any time you have to evacuate -- if it isn't safe or comfortable for you, it won't be for your pets either.