Disaster Preparedness Skills for Your Feline Behavior Clients
When a client contacts you for help with their cat’s challenging behavior, you have an opportunity to give them tools that they may not even realize they need. In the course of identifying the problems their cat is having and coming up with a solution, a behavior consultant has the chance to teach about feline body language, training techniques, management, enrichment, and much more. One area that I believe behavior consultants should consider adding to their standard teaching package is disaster preparedness. Teaching what to do in the event of a fire, flood, tornado, or other emergency situation brings together important basic skills in a way that has immediately obvious benefits to the client: You’re teaching them things that could save their cat’s life. In this article, I’ll go over some of the key elements of disaster preparedness skills you can pass on to your clients.
Anyone who has ever had to deal with a panicked, out-of-control cat knows that capturing them and controlling them is no easy feat. Even the most docile cat can turn wild in a high-stress situation. Worse still is a cat who hunkers down, silent as the grave, and hides. The key to managing potentially startled and difficult cats is to be one step ahead and be ready for unusual situations, and attempt to handle it before panic and alarm sets in. You cannot do this without first preparing your home and your pets for disaster situations. There are two sets of circumstances typically encountered: situations requiring you to take shelter (such as tornadoes) and situations that require you to evacuate (such as fire and flood). While we cannot control every aspect of an emergency, we can take steps to help our cats survive these terrible situations when they do arise.
Supplies to put in storm shelters for cats
A basic internet search will tell you what you should keep in a storm shelter for humans, and you can mention this if you’re talking to clients about their cats too. After all, you must take care of yourself if you are to take care of your pets! On top of supplies for the humans, we can encourage clients to have a few items for their cats. Here is what I keep in my storm shelter for my cats:
Dog kennel—at least 24 inches, hard-sided crates only
- Small litter pan—dish pans or disposable aluminum pans from the dollar store work great
- Non-clumping litter in a watertight bag (non-clumping litter will last longer)
- Water bowl (I have metal ones that attach to the cage to prevent spillage)
- Dry food in an airtight waterproof bag, or canned food with spoons
- Pet first aid kit, including any medications the cat needs
- Thermal mylar reflective beds and fleece blankets in a waterproof container
- Blankets or covers for cages
- Bucket with garbage bags for waste
- Cat treats for luring a reluctant cat to enter the shelter
- Bottled water
In my shelter, there are enough hard-sided crates or cages to accommodate every cat in my home. Closely bonded cats may go into the same crate, but keep in mind that stressed cats may fight each other so it is probably better to suggest that your client keep their cats separate. Soft-sided crates can be used in a pinch; however, I have noticed that many cats figure out how to escape these. I have seen a determined cat break a zipper at the weak point and escape. Soft crates also do not offer any protection from debris.
Each of my cages has room for a small litter pan and a thermal mat. Blankets or covers can be used to place over the cage to keep out dust or to calm a panicked cat. Carpet remnants or other similar material can be placed under the cages to offer some warmth from cold basement floors.
Flooding can come with a storm, so it is important that all supplies are off the ground. The easiest way is to put supplies in plastic storage bags and then place the supplies in a plastic storage bin. Blankets, rugs, and beds must be protected from water and dampness. Power outages and floods are common with storms, so you must be prepared for being in a situation where you will have no heat and damp bedding will not do.
More useful materials
Pet Alert stickers can be purchased cheaply and affixed to a window or door to tell firefighters there are pets inside. By the front and back doors is a good location, and if you have a cat room, on the window or door to the cat room. For added peace of mind, wireless cameras can be set up to check on pets when you are away from home. (Note that you can also use these when you work with clients to see the behavior they hired you for!) You will need a Wi-Fi connection and a smartphone to use these.
Training and desensitization
Now that you’ve explained the items your client needs to make sure they are prepared for an emergency, you can talk them through some basic training, desensitization, and counter-conditioning techniques. Chances are you’ll be using the same techniques in your work on whatever behavioral issue the client contacted you for, but this is a good way to demonstrate to the client that training is useful for every cat, and it can help them think about training as more than a way to “fix” behavior problems.
If the cats are not used to being caged or put in crates, this would be a good time to encourage your clients to get them used to it. Remember, short and repetitive sessions with a high rate of reinforcement are best.
It is also a good idea to get the cat used to the storm shelter itself, provided it is a safe space with no places cats could escape or toxic materials they could get into. This is a great opportunity to teach clients about how to positively encourage habituation to a new area—a useful skill they can employ in the future. Then you can explain to your clients how to slowly introduce a cat to a new area, using lots of treats and allowing them to leave whenever they appear stressed. For bold cats, it can be turned into a game. I cat-proofed my basement and tossed a few treats on the floor. I opened the door and simply sat in the basement and supervised the bold cats as they explored the space. Once they looked around and ate a few treats, I ended the session and closed off access to the basement. They now see going down there as a game and an opportunity to seek out a few tidbits.
If cat-proofing the shelter is just not possible, clients can take their cat down on a leash or carrier for short periods several times a week. Make sure they know how to make the experience fun and use treats.
If you or your client needs to evacuate the home with cats
You will need:
- A cat carrier for each cat
- Elastic collars, leashes, and/or harnesses
- Vet paperwork
- Pop-up shelters/playpens
Carriers should be placed in an easy-to-reach location—they do no good shoved in a back closet, garage, or shed. Hard-sided, top-loading carriers are the best. Top-loaders cost a bit more but are invaluable for putting a struggling cat into a carrier if it comes to that. Elastic collar and leash sets can be kept by a window or other location in case a very quick exit is needed. In a life-or-death situation, a pillowcase or sheet can be used to grab a cat and make a quick exit. This method is for last-resort situations only, and carriers should be used if possible.
Special tips for apartments with shared shelters
Some people live in apartments and do not have a basement or shelter. In this situation you can still take steps to keep cats safe. During bad weather, you can confine your cat to a bedroom with a carrier. This makes it easier to get the cat ready in a hurry in case you need to head for safety. It is also advisable to pack a small “storm bag” that you can grab and take with you to safety. Include your basics but keep it light enough to carry downstairs. Often in apartments a lot of people will be using the shelter, and all the noise of strange people can upset a cat. Once you head for shelter with your cat in the carrier, put a blanket over the cat to keep it calm.
What if a cat panics or hides?
Despite our best efforts, there will always be cats or situations that get out of control. If a cat panics, the client still needs to know what the best course of action is, so they don’t panic too. They can attempt to calmly corral the cat into a room and close the door. If the cat still doesn’t calm down, they can throw a heavy blanket over the cat and place that into a carrier or pillowcase. This is only advisable to use as a last-ditch effort, and only if there is enough time to safely do this.
If the cat simply cannot be caught, clients can try to herd the cat into a bathroom or closet in the event of a storm. Some cats will hide when a storm comes, so it is important that your client has an idea of their cats’ favorite hiding spots in advance.
In the event of a fire, humans must consider their own safety first. Some cats will just panic during a strange event and will not come to a person, or may even attack. If you just cannot get the cat out, leave the door or window open as you exit, including the outside door. Alert the firefighter that a cat is still inside. Do not attempt to rescue the cat yourself, as smoke inhalation can kill you.
It can be a bit overwhelming putting together a disaster kit, especially if you have multiple cats. Clients may be resistant to spending additional money when they’ve just written you a check for behavior modification services! You can suggest that clients start with getting appropriate hard-sided, top-loading carriers, which can also be used to transport the cat to the vet, and even be a “fresh start” if the cat already has a history of unpleasant experiences in the soft-sided carrier they have at home. Having sturdy, ready-to-use carriers is the best defense for a disaster. Clients can also start training their cat to come when called right away.
Here’s hoping disaster never hits your home, but if it does, you can give your clients’ cats—and yours—a fighting chance.
Kat has been caring for and learning from felines all her life. Her experiences as a young adult included farm, kennel, and veterinary work. While she lived in Michigan, Kat founded a cats-only rescue called Tiny Tales. It was rescuing the “death row” cats that inspired her to start educating others on feline behavior. Kat spends her free time showing and training her Oriental Longhairs. She is active in TNR feral cat work and loves to garden.