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Animals in disaster: Caring for your pets and livestock

Whether you keep animals as pets or livestock, they are vulnerable in disasters like floods, fires, storms and severe heat, so it is important to include them in your emergency plans

While some organisations will rescue animals during emergencies, making a plan that includes your animals and being prepared early is the best way to keep them safe.

The State Emergency Service (SES) rescued more than 50 animals during flooding across inland NSW in October 2022.

Gina the camel was lost during flooding in Moama and saved by a water rescue team.

The team, a combination of SES, Fire and Rescue NSW, Surf Life Saving and Marine Rescue was alerted by Gina’s distressed owner.

“Camels can’t swim and Gina was precariously close to the banks of the river,” NSW Fire and Rescue Inspector Phillip Eberle said.

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Gina the camel rescued from flooded Murray River(Supplied: Fire and Rescue NSW)

Crisis Animal Response and Evacuation (CARE) NSW rescued pets, wildlife and livestock during the floods in western Sydney in July 2022.

CARE’s Josh Robinson said his team was able to save many of the animals they were called out to help but some were not so lucky.

He described confronting scenes, including discovering dead animals that had been left behind at one property.

“It’s pretty sad but you can’t do much about it. You can’t even get into the property because the water is up over the door,” Mr Robinson said.

Mr Robinson said many of the animal owners requesting help from the service had not believed the warnings about the flood risk.

“Next minute they’re underwater, asking for help,” he said.

It is not just official organisations that come to the aid of animals in danger during emergencies.

Leigh Shepherd saved his neighbour’s 25-year-old horse, Tilly, from drowning in floodwaters in Murwillumbah, NSW in 2017.

He said his wife heard the animal struggling in deep water in front of their home, and he swam out to the horse, making several attempts to get the animal to safety.

His son Rob ended up using an extension cord to lead the horse to a stairwell outside their house.

The horse made it up the stairs and onto the landing that was also underwater.

“Once she got up the stairs, she was exhausted and just collapsed,” Mr Shepherd said.

Rob Shepherd, 21, held Tilly’s head above water on a boogie board for more than five hours waiting for the water to recede.

Tilly the horse on the landing during the floods
Tilly the horse lies inside the Shepherds’ front door.(Facebook: Leigh Shepherd)

“She was just buggered, she couldn’t move, she just lay there and was dependent on us,” he said.

Tilly survived the night thanks to Leigh and Rob Shepherd’s efforts, with only a few injuries from the ordeal, and was eventually reunited with her grateful owners.

Looking after your pets in a flood emergency

  • Have an up-to-date emergency pet kit and if evacuated, try to take your pets with you. If left behind, even secured animals can be injured and it may take several days before you can return home.
  • If you can’t take pets with you, leave them in an upstairs room with plenty of food and water. Leave a note on your door or mailbox and tell the local SES or state department of primary industries in case there’s an opportunity to rescue the animals.
  • Consider potential risks and issues with large animals like horses. Is the land you keep them on susceptible to flood? Think about how they could be moved and where the animals could go in an evacuation. Always move large pets before flooding hits.
  • The best thing you can do for your livestock in an emergency is to prepare early.

Central Coast & Hunter Valley Horse & Livestock Evacuation & Rescue Aid’s Sharon Risdale advises against leaving the preparation and decisions too late.

“In a flood and a panic situation there’s no time to say, ‘I might teach my horse how to get onto a float’,” said Ms Ridsdale.

Moving livestock in a flood emergency

  • If an emergency flood warning or flood watch has been issued for your location, consider moving stock to a safe area, away from potential flooding.
  • Ensure all animals are properly registered and tagged.
  • Check what local services can help with the relocation of livestock, and plan where you will relocate before any flooding begins. Work with friends, family or neighbours to prepare.
  • When you have a plan, move animals to high ground and ensure they have additional feed should they become stranded.
  • Only cut fences to allow stock to escape in cases of extreme danger.
  • Be aware of gate and water locations on your property, think about potential flood areas on a map and have this available in case someone must move stock for you.
  • Be aware of potential health or disease concerns for animals that are wet and cold. Fly strike is common in sheep after being wet, and things like abscesses and other foot problems can affect cows that have been standing in mud.
  • There may be shortages of clean water and food after a flood. Be aware of issues from toxic plants, such as bloat from lush clover.
  • Flood water often contains runoff and silt and may affect drinking water or dams. Be on the lookout for animals not drinking or algal blooms.

Consider the wildlife around you during a flood

During flooding around the mid-north coast of NSW in 2021, extra passengers jumped into a life raft as NSW Fire and Rescue (NSWFR) flood rescue specialists prepared to evacuate a family of six and their three cats from their home north of Taree.

NSWFR Inspector Russell Turner said up to four snakes appeared along with spiders and insects, and had to be removed before the rescuers could put the four children and two parents on board and paddle them back to safety.

Inspector Turner said it was common for animals to try and get to safety during floods.

“The crews are used to the hazards in the dark and in the water and during times like this the snakes and spiders see the raft as a safe place,” he said.

  • If you see wildlife isolated or trapped by floodwaters, alert animal rescue authorities. Don’t interfere with the animal unless it’s in immediate danger.
  • Take extra care when driving near recently flooded roads, particularly during dusk and dawn as animals may congregate there.
  • Animals may take up refuge under rocks or in logs during floods so be careful when cleaning up.
  • Look out for spiders and snakes around your property as they sometimes move into houses to avoid the water.

Heatwaves can kill. Research has shown that heatwaves are Australia’s deadliest natural hazard.

Extreme heat can be lethal to both you and your animals, but with good preparation, and regular checks, you can keep everyone safe and cooler.

Signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke in animals

  • Panting or heavy breathing
  • Drinking more water
  • Not eating
  • Listlessness
  • Drooling
Alert and panting dog lying in a muddy puddle.
Any puddle will do in a heatwave for this kelpie in Gippsland.(Supplied: Jason Smith)

How to keep your pets cool in extreme heat

  • If the weather is too hot for you, it’s too hot for your pets.
  • Ensure your pets have plenty of shade and enough cool water to last the entire day. Putting ice or a frozen bottle in their bowl will help keep water cool for longer.
  • NEVER leave an animal in a parked vehicle.
  • Make sure dogs in utes have shade and water and can’t burn their feet on hot trays.
  • Walk dogs early in the morning or late at night. Test footpaths with your hand to make sure it’s not too hot.
  • Avoid leaving your pet outside on hot days, instead provide a cool area indoors with a fan or air-conditioning. Check on them regularly.
  • Dogs will pant to cool down. If your cat starts to pant, it could be close to overheating.
  • Keep small animals like guinea pigs or birds in the shade and give something cool to lay against like a frozen water bottle with a wet towel around it.
  • If you keep backyard chickens, they’re particularly sensitive to heat, so place their water in the shade and keep it cool by putting frozen bottles inside.

Livestock also need extra care during very hot weather.

Riverina Local Land Services veterinarian Sophie Hemley said in a heatwave, animals needed twice as much water as normal.

“Adult sheep can drink between two and 12 litres of water, and adult cattle can drink between 100 and 140 litres per head, per day,” Dr Hemley said

Help livestock cope in a heatwave

  • Provide plenty of shade and shelter – big enough that animals don’t “smother” each other looking for shade
  • Provide cool water close to the shade
  • If possible, don’t let animals access dams as they can become boggy and animals accessing the water may get stuck
  • Check on livestock daily

Young or dark-coloured animals, or those that have been sick, are less tolerant of the heat, as are certain breeds. For example, British breeds of sheep are less tolerant than merino. Know your animals and their limits, and give special treatment to the vulnerable among your flocks and herds.

According to NSW central west pig breeder Louisa Carey, pigs have “a lot of trouble” with the heat.

“They don’t sweat very effectively,” Ms Carey said.

“To cool down in hot weather they really need mud, so we’re using up our stores of water for them every day during the hot weather.”

Woman with water hose watering a pig in a wallow.
Louisa Carey is using her precious rainwater to keep her sows and piglets cool during the heatwave.(ABC Central West: Luke Wong)

Caring for wildlife during a heatwave

  • Place bowls of water around your property. If you use a large container, make sure to provide rocks or sticks so that small animals can climb out.
  • If water conservation is not a concern, use the garden hose to spray mist into trees and shrubs to cool the environment down.
  • If you see wildlife resting in your garden, keep people and pets away.
  • You may have seen images of people hand-feeding koalas water from a bottle. This is not recommended as it can cause drowning. Experts say the best way to help a dehydrated koala is to offer them water in a bowl or your hands, so they can gently lap up water.
Koala drinking from a bucket on a golf course, under sprinklers.
This koala was given a drink after being seen trying to lick water off its back from the golf course sprinklers.(Supplied: Paul Sirovica)

Keeping your pets safe during a bushfire

Planning for pets and animals is an important part of your household’s bushfire preparations. Safety for your pets and animals is your responsibility and being prepared is essential for survival.

Include animals in your planning and take early action to protect or relocate them to appropriate premises. Here are some things you can consider while you’re making or following your plan.

  • Make sure your pets are properly registered, keep track of vaccination and registration documents and include photos of your pets.
  • If you must evacuate during a bushfire, make sure you have all the things your pet might need, from food and water to medication and important documentation. Also, bring any specialised animal equipment blinkers for horses or a muzzle if your dog needs it.
  • Ensure your animal is secure, with leads for dogs, cats in cages and consider moving animals like fish or birds to smaller tanks or cages for easier transport.
  • Large pets like horses will need to be evacuated well before the emergency situation occurs. Check warnings regularly and make note of where the fire is in relation to your property and how it might affect access.
  • Consider where you will move animals if you need to evacuate. Can you leave them with friends or family? You can also consider informal agreements with people in your animal networks, for example pony clubs or dog breeding groups.

If you cannot evacuate or are forced to leave your pets behind, there are a few things you can do.

  • Leave your pets untethered and provide food or water in multiple places.
  • Leave information about your pet on the front door or mailbox, so that emergency services know what animals they will encounter, how many and where.
  • If you can bring your pets inside, leave them in a secure room, ideally a room with no windows and adequate airflow like a bathroom or laundry.
  • If you must leave your pets outside, make sure that they can escape if needed. Don’t tie them up and leave fences open.
  • Ensure that multiple water and shelter sources are available.
  • Trained service animals will be allowed to stay in emergency shelters with their owners. You will need to show evidence of registration and accreditation.

After a fire event, animals may become disorientated or aggressive. Take care when releasing them and do so in a confined area.

If you become separated from your pets, contact animal shelters and boarding facilities for missing animals and have a recent photo of your pet to help with identification.

Looking after your livestock during a fire

When fire was headed towards 18-year-old Oliver McCleary’s stock, he knew he had to remain calm in order to move them.

“I just tried to keep pushing as much as possible but there was a point where I had to leave and let them be.” Mr McLeary said.

Despite the ordeal, he said fire preparation earlier in the day helped him keep calm.

“You can’t really move stock [by] sort of pushing them around,” he said.

“You’ve just got to move them calmly.”

If you need to relocate your animals during a bushfire it must be done well before the fire impacts your area.

  • Relocate animals to a safe paddock. It should have a water supply, clear access, be well grazed and have intact and secure fencing.
  • Make sure all livestock are properly tagged and easily identifiable as yours.
  • Talk to your neighbours and other landholders in the area. Work out where animals can be evacuated to, where safe places might be and plan logistics for moving the stock.
  • Share your plan with people in your family and in your community.
  • Make sure livestock have access to secure water sources and do not rely on mains water.
  • If you must evacuate and cannot take your livestock with you, find a minimum of five days of food and ensure access to the paddock for Fire and Rescue services.
  • Do not rug horses with synthetic blankets as they may melt in extreme heat.

Helping wildlife in a bushfire

Organisations like the Department of Primary Industries in your state will often be in control of animal rescue during natural disasters. These departments usually work with Wildlife organisations like WIRES or RSPCA, which have specialist training to work on fire grounds, and will often work to coordinate rescues of native animals during bushfires.

Do your homework, find out what animals are in your local area and have the contact details for local wildlife rescue or your nearest vet on hand.

If you find injured wildlife during an emergency, the first thing you should do is contact your nearest veterinarian or wildlife organisation.

  • If an animal has been burnt, don’t attempt to give it food or water. Wrap it loosely in cotton or a towel and keep it in a cool, dark place while waiting for rescue or during transport.
  • Keep useful items for rescuing wildlife in your car: gloves, a cardboard box, towels and blankets.
  • Some animals like snakes, large kangaroos, flying foxes or monitor lizards should only be rescued by trained specialists. In these cases, call for help.
  • Leave out extra water around your property for wildlife.
  • In heat or fire events animals may drink from backyard pools to cool down or jump in to flee from fires. Make sure that animals can escape from pools, add rocks to the steps to make them easier to climb, secure rope to the side of the pool or use floats like noodles or body boards so animals can get out. Check your pool daily.
  • Never enter an active fire zone. If you find injured or fire-affected wildlife, ring your local wildlife rescue group.
  • Consider donating to your local wildlife organisation or volunteering your time as a wildlife carer. Only licensed wildlife rescue and rehabilitation providers or qualified vets may take injured or orphaned native animals into care.

The best thing you can do for your pets and livestock is to include them in your emergency plan, prepare early and as soon as emergency services issue warnings, put your plan in action.  

Wildlife Rescue Line: 13 000 WIRES or 1300 094 737

For emergency assistance call the NSW Agriculture and Animal Services Hotline on 1800 814 647

•    NSW Government – Department of Primary Industries – Before an emergency

•    NT Government – SecureNT – Animals in Emergencies – Livestock

•    QLD Government – Business Queensland – Animal welfare in natural disasters

•    SA Government – PIRSA – Animal safety in emergencies

•    VIC Government – Agriculture Victoria – Horses and livestock in emergencies

•    TAS Government – Biosecurity Tasmania – Animals and Bushfire

•    WA Government – DPIRD – Animal welfare in emergencies