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Plan for your pet's safety during National Preparedness Month

We love our dogs. We feed them, groom them, train and exercise them. But as responsible pet owners, we mustn't stop there. Planning for our dog's safety during a disaster, his healthcare during a medical crisis and his security upon our own death or illness are three main staples owners need to address. It's almost September, and September is National Preparedness Month, and so what better time than now to get everything ready, just in case? Knowing your beloved dog will be cared for and safe no matter the circumstances is true peace of mind.

WHEN DISASTER STRIKES

In order to survive a disaster, you need to be prepared for it. The same rule applies to our dogs. We are fortunate enough to live in an area not known for hurricanes, ice storms, blizzards or tornadoes, but no one is immune from tragedies, not even Southern California. We've had a series of earthquakes in the Southland recently. Do you have a disaster kit ready? What about one for your dog?

Disasters come in all shapes and sizes, from natural ones hitting on a grand scale to smaller, man-made catastrophes that affect one block in a small neighborhood. Terrorist attacks, wildfires (we are quickly approaching fire season here in California), hazardous material spills, earthquakes, floods, plane crashes, train derailments—all of these can mean disaster for our pets if we're not prepared.

"No one is really safeguarded from a disaster," said Betsy McFarland, senior director for companion animals for The Humane Society of the United States.

The trick to surviving disasters is to be get yourself ready beforehand. Think. Know what to do. Locate what's available. Have a plan of action.

First, create a kit that contains everything your pet will require for at least five days.

"You need to add whatever you'd be supplying on a daily basis for your dogs," said McFarland.

Include food, a manual can opener, water, bowls, sturdy leashes and collars, copies of medical records, veterinarian information, current photos/descriptions of your dogs (in case they get lost or you get separated) and medicine in Ziploc bags or other waterproof enclosures. Also include towels, blankets and favorite toys. Store all of this in a duffel bag or other container that is easily located; don't stick it in the upper corner of your attic or farthest recesses of your packed garage.

"You want to just grab it and go," said McFarland.

Also, have travel crates or kennels at the ready, even if you don't use them at home on a regular basis. This enables you to take your dogs into more places than you would if they were not contained, such as hotels or some shelters. The crates should be large enough for the dog to stand comfortably, turn around and lie down. Include some sheets or bedding to make the kennel more comfortable.

Always have identification secured on your dogs' collars, and consider microchipping them as well. On the tags, list numerous phone numbers, such as your home phone, cellphone and the number of a family member or friend. These identifying tools are invaluable if you are ever separated from your dog and need to be reunited.

Consider where you'll go well in advance of any emergency. Are there family members in the next town you could stay with? Friends up north? A pet-friendly hotel or motel? Map out a few options both near and far that fit your family, and figure out how you'll get there. If you choose a motel or hotel, call and make reservation as soon as you think you may need to evacuate, as units fill up fast in a disaster. You may also want to locate various boarding facilities or shelters in neighboring areas to see if they house dogs during emergencies. Don't forget to research veterinarians and 24-hour emergency clinics in your safety areas in case your dog needs medical assistance. On that note, always have your closest veterinary hospital identified, with contact info and directions taped to your refrigerator at all times. Medical disasters can happen at any time, and knowing where to go for help is vital.

Ask a nearby family member or friend to take care of your dogs when disaster strikes in your absence. Give this person keys to the house, alarm codes, instructions on where to go as well as the location of your emergency bag and kennel. Make sure this is someone your dog knows and trusts. This way, if there is a fire or flood, or even a hazmat spill when you're not around, your contact person knows how to get your dogs to safety. Agree to meet that person at a designated "safe spot" or have him drop the dogs off there.

If a disaster warning has been issued, don't wait until evacuation is mandatory before activating your escape plan. Immediately confine your dogs to a room or the kennel to keep them from spooking and running off. Begin preparing your exit, and above all else, never, ever leave the area without your dogs. That is the single most important thing you can do in a disaster: take your pets with you. If the situation is unsafe for humans, it will be unsafe for animals as well, said McFarland.

When you return home after the all-clear has been issued, keep your dogs on leash for a bit and possibly isolate them in a kennel or a quiet room. Be patient as they slowly get back into a groove and become themselves again.

"It's been a stressful situation for your pet," said McFarland.

BE WELL

With advances in veterinary care, dogs are living longer, healthier lives. Just like us, dogs are now able to receive various treatments and medications combating just about any disease or injury, from cancer to car accidents. But this comes at a price. More and more owners don't think twice when it comes to choosing medical options for their dogs, thanks to canine health insurance.

"A pet owner is not caught in the position of having to choose less-optimal treatment or, in the extreme cases, having to put their pets to sleep" because they don't have enough money, said Brian Iannessa, spokesperson for Veterinary Pet Insurance, the nation's oldest and largest pet insurance company, based in Orange County, Calif. "Being safeguarded with a pet insurance plan gives them peace of mind."

Pet insurance is issued by a variety of carriers, such as VPI, and covers a percentage of the veterinary care. Most often, owners pay the vet bill up front, then submit receipts and a claim form to the insurance company, which evaluates the bill, subtracts the per-fee deductible (usually about $50) and then reimburses owners a set percentage of the agreed-upon total for that procedure (those "reasonable and customary" rates you've dealt with in your own insurance plans). In the end, owners usually pocket about 50-70 percent of what they paid initially. Claims do not cause companies to drop clients, nor do they raise the annual policy rates, said Iannessa.

"It's not like car insurance where you're afraid to make a claim," he said.

Thousands of different medical conditions are covered through pet insurance policies, from simple cuts to complex surgeries. Even chronic conditions such as diabetes can be covered, as are accidents, injuries and holistic vet care like acupuncture, depending on the plan. Some even offer coverage of preventative well-dog care, vaccinations and dental exams. Elective procedures (ear cropping, grooming) and behavioral problems are usually not covered. Certain hereditary or breed-specific conditions may not be covered either.

When you have pet insurance, you hope you won't have to use it. But in case the unexpected happens and you do need it, the plan is there to help you cover veterinary bills so you can give your dog the best medicine has to offer without worrying about your anorexic wallet.

The cost per-month for insurance varies upon the age of the dog, the breed, state of residence and how comprehensive of a plan purchased, but it generally runs about $30-$40 a month, said Iannessa.

"It's less than a cable bill," he added.

At VPI, plan prices increase as the dog reaches senior status, but not until then. It is not structured like life insurance; rates are not locked in for the life of the policy. Preexisting conditions can prove problematic when enrolling a dog, says Iannessa. So the best advice is to purchase insurance before anything is even suspected to be wrong with the dog, preferably while he's young.

LIFE AFTER DEATH

Considering the average life span of dogs, most of us figure we'll outlive not just one, but many of our pets. We don't think too much about them outliving us. But what if they do? Who will take care of our four-legged family members then?

This is where pet trusts come into play and ease owners' minds. A pet trust is basically a legal way to provide for your animals if you die or if you become physically unable to care for them. It sets up funds to be used for the pet's care, appoints a guardian for him, and names someone to administer the funds. Money (in the form of cash or property) fattens the trust and is given by the trustee to the guardian so she can care for the dog properly.

"This is a very important area," said says Elenora L. Benz, a Newton, N.J.-based attorney and author of the New Jersey pet trust legislation.

A will is different than a trust. The former is a document you write during your life, but is not enforced until you die. A trust is a document, signed by you and your trustee, that can be enforced during or after your lifetime. A will goes through probate. A trust does not. Both need to be created through experienced attorneys versed in this aspect of the law. While it's possible to create a pet trust on your own, it's best done professionally; most people in California include it as part of their lifetime trusts, said Benz. This is especially vital if you are an older or single dog owner.

The trust may detail such things as:

* The trustee and contact info;

* The dog guardian's name and contact info, as well as those of the alternate caregiver;

* Detailed description and identification info of your dog (license number, microchip information, physical description);

* The standard of living and care you wish for your dog;

* How the trust will be funded and what to do with leftover money;

* Instructions on the final disposition of your pet's body after death;

* The type of food your dog eats and his routine;

* Exercise and training routines;

* Individual quirks and characteristics of the dog;

* Medical history, chronic conditions; preventative care schedule.

First, appoint someone as a trustee, and a trusted friend or family member as caregiver. Pick someone who likes dogs, has room to own one, knows your pet well and is willing to keep “siblings” together. Choose a back-up guardian, too, and give both keys to your house, feeding/care instructions, copies of veterinary records and information about any permanent provisions you’ve made for your dog. Every so often, check in with your appointed caregivers to make sure their lives haven’t changed, disabling them from taking your dog.

Sit down and determine exactly how much money your pet will need to continue his lifestyle and medical care. Take into account your dog's age and life expectancy, health status, annual veterinary costs, training fees, food and treat totals, licensing fees, boarding costs, dog sitter rates, costs of entering contests or exhibitions, toy costs, dental bills and anything else unique your dog enjoys or takes part in during the year.

"Think about all the stuff you ordinarily buy for your pet," said Benz.

Once you have the annual total of what you spend on your dog (take a deep breath. It's probably a lot more than you first estimated), multiply that by the number of years your dog is expected to live. Add on more for unexpected veterinary bills, and you have a rough amount of what needs to be in the trust fund. Figure out where the money will come from (life insurance, pension, the sale of your home, etc.) upon your death or disability.

Pet trusts can be enforced even if you don't pass away. Owners who are in accidents, suffer serious health issues or enter into the care of a nursing facility also need someone to care for their dogs. Sometimes the need for a guardian is temporary (while you recover from back surgery, let's say) or permanent, but plans need to be made beforehand.

Keep the name and contact info of your dog's guardian in your wallet with you as well as in a visible place in your home (like on the refrigerator) in case of emergencies. On this card, also include the dogs' names and descriptions (not just "Fluffy," white female, if you have three white female Poodles).

To find an attorney experienced in creating pet trusts, call estate-planning attorneys and ask how many of these they do annually.

"Do your due diligence," said Benz.

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We hope that emergencies and disasters never happen. But as history as shown us, they do. Most of these things are out of our control, but to achieve peace of mind, all we need to do is prepare ourselves now. Take a weekend and get your ducks in a row, so to speak. It may be work at first, but in the end, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that no matter what crosses your path, you've got it covered.

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