Florida needs more pet-friendly hurricane shelters for the elderly

(Reuters Health) - When pet owners need to flee from disasters like hurricanes and fires, they often think first of their animals, but a new study suggests a scarcity of pet-friendly emergency shelters could make older evacuees all the more vulnerable.

FILE PHOTO: Residents carry their pets and belongings into a shelter ahead of the downfall of Hurricane Irma in Estero, Florida, U.S. September 9, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

The lack of sufficient emergency shelter to house evacuees along with their dogs and cats in Florida’s Miami-Dade metropolitan area may prolong older pet owners’ hesitation to leave home when a hurricane hits, researchers warn in the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences.

“We do need to make sure that we have pet-friendly accommodations available for people, that these accommodations are comfortable and that we don’t have to separate people from their pets,” said lead author Rachel Douglas, a sociology doctoral candidate at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

“If they don’t feel they can find a comfortable accommodation for themselves and their pet, they might stay at home,” she said in a phone interview.

Emergency managers took lessons from the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, when many Gulf Coast residents in the storm’s path did not evacuate because shelters didn’t allow pets ( Today, some shelters in hurricane-prone states do accept companion animals, but during the most recent hurricanes that hit Texas and Florida, anecdotal reports suggest pet-friendly shelter was still difficult to find (

Having pets is one of the best predictors that people in harm’s way won’t heed evacuation orders, said Melissa Hunt, associate director of clinical psychology training at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“This puts human lives in danger - both the pet owners themselves and first responders who might be put in a position to try to rescue them belatedly,” she said by email.

In the current study, completed before the latest hurricane season, researchers mapped the need and the availability of pet-friendly shelters in the Miami-Dade metropolitan area, an urban area frequently in the eye of hurricanes, and found a shortage.

The need was most acute among pet owners with more limited means and older adults living farther away from shelters, the study found. Only 28 of Florida’s 67 counties offer pet-friendly hurricane-evacuation shelters, the researchers note.

Douglas and her team had theorized that older adults would have a greater need for pet-friendly shelters. But they found that age was not a factor, she said.

Still, 34 percent of older adults in the Miami-Dade area have pets, and 35 percent of them said they would require help evacuating. Those in need of help were more than twice as likely to anticipate using a public shelter than those who could evacuate on their own.

“Pet ownership makes disaster evacuation less likely and more difficult, especially for elderly owners with more disability and fewer resources,” Hunt said.

Pet-friendly shelters may ease the problem slightly, she told Reuters Health. But evacuation becomes complicated for many elderly pet owners who live long distances from pet-friendly shelters.

In addition to opening pet-friendly shelters, Hunt stressed the importance of letting evacuees who live with animals know that shelters willing to take animals are available. In addition, because of the challenge of locating proof of vaccines when evacuating, she called for shelters to accommodate all pets regardless of missing vaccination proof.

“At the very least, a dog’s rabies ‘tag’ should be sufficient evidence of vaccination for that dog,” she said.

The new study’s findings came as no surprise to Daniel Petrolia, a professor of environmental economics at Mississippi State University, because they are consistent with his own research.

“I would not, however, jump to the conclusion that more pet-friendly shelters are needed, because I have no idea what that does to the cost of operating a shelter, nor do I have any idea what effect that may have on people without pets going to shelters,” Petrolia, who was not involved with the study, said by email.

He noted that one limitation of the study is that it fails to examine whether existing pet-friendly shelters filled to capacity during recent hurricanes. Another limitation is that the study did not examine whether a lack of proof of vaccines blocked entry to dogs and cats at emergency shelters.

SOURCE: Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, online October 4, 2017.