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Posted on Fri, Oct 8, 2010 : 1:50 p.m.

Be prepared: Tips for how to include your pets in a fire safety plan

By Lorrie Shaw

For so many of us, pets are members of the family. They share our lives, through good and bad — even in the unfortunate event of a house fire. We've all been taught throughout our lives about fire safety, and we know we should have a well-designed escape plan in place, should a house fire occur. You do have one, right?

But have you included your pets in that plan?

Members of local fire and rescue teams and animal care professionals say that it's entirely possible to not only plan for the humans in the family, but our animals as well — and it's a surprisingly easy concept to implement.

We're in the midst of Fire Prevention Week, Oct. 3-9. Through efforts of the National Fire Protection Association and other groups, many resources are available to keep each member of your family safe in the event of a fire.

I spoke with several members of local fire departments this week, including Capt. Michelle Stanbury of the City of Ypsilanti Fire Department, Chief Craig Hoeft of the City of Saline Fire Department (who is hosting an open house noon to 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 10), Matt Schaecher, a Detroit firefighter, Ann Arbor Fire Marshal Kathleen Chamberlain and Scot Basar, a firefighter with Chelsea Area Fire Authority. Three main areas of fire safety and pets became evident: prevention, rescue and reviving animals.

Of course, the primarily objective in fire safety is to prevent a fire from occurring in the first place. According to the National Fire Protection Association, almost 1,000 fires annually are started by a homeowner's pet. 

The number one cause? Pets near stovetops. In many cases, a pet's curiosity gets the better of him, and he tries to investigate yummy food, like cookies or cakes sitting on top of the stove — then accidentally bumps a stove knob, igniting a gas burner. It's best to keep all food away from that area and remove the knobs, or use child proof covers. Also, don't keep food, even pet food, on the counters. It's too enticing for resourceful pets to try and reach.

Other things to keep in mind to prevent a fire:

  • Avoid using candles around pets. The flicker of the flame draws their curiosity. Lit candles can be accidentally knocked off tables. Choose flameless candles instead.
  • Be sure that open flames are extinguished before leaving pets unattended anytime — this means fireplaces, candles and stoves.
  • Be sure that your hot water heater has a cover over the pilot light area. Keep everything away from this appliance.
  • Electrical cords are enticing. Bundle any cords neatly and tuck away if possible. Train your pet to not chew on cords and consider coating cords with a bitter agent for pets like Boundary, or Bitter Apple as a deterrent. Also, discourage pets from napping behind appliances, like computers and dryers. (Cats frequently do this.)
  • Do not leave a glass water bowl for your pet outside on a wooden deck. The sun's rays, when filtered through the glass and water can actually magnify, heat up and ignite the wooden deck beneath it. Opt for stainless steel or ceramic bowls.

To keep pets safe in the event of a fire (when you're home):

  • Have an escape route and plan in place to expedite the escape of everyone, including your pets, to a location outside and to an agreed upon meeting place. One integral thing that can ensure a safe exit is having a leash and cat carrier near the exit door. Maintaining control of a pet in a stressful situation like this means everything.
  • During planning, you can teach your pooch that the smoke alarm going off means something significant. The noise from the alarm can be a nonverbal signal to your dog that they need to spring into action, along with everyone else, in a calm, cooperative way to exit the home safely. Implementing a specific training exercise with your dog and working with them can be part of their basic training.
  • After devising a clear exit plan, walk through it together, beginning with the sound of the alarm and proceeding just as you all would if there were a fire. Ideally, Hoeft adds, "Practicing the fire escape plan monthly will help kids and pets grasp the exercise with confidence." Pets are especially capable — they learn best with repetition and catch on quickly.
  • Integrating kids into the plan can be a pinnacle in getting them to understand the gravity of the situation, because they can be integral in ensuring that a pet is accounted for, especially if there are multiple pets. There are some pets who, by habit, sleep with a preferred child; it can be that child's mission within the plan to confirm to the adults where the pet is, or, if they are old enough to be considered able to do so, scoop up the cat and get her into a cat carrier or grab the leash near the door and accompany the dog outside.

To ensure your pets get out safely, even if you're not there:

  • Use pet rescue stickers. Available from the Humane Society of Huron Valley, the stickers are used to alert firefighters that there are pets in the home. Schaecher, also a supervisor of cruelty and rescue for the Humane Society of Huron Valley, recommends that pet owners affix the sticker on the front door, or the window closest to the front door. Also, he said changing the sticker annually is a must. When they look faded or old, firefighters do not always assume that they are recent. Stanbury also said that "due to the fact that Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor are both college towns, and folks in the area can be more transient, updating pet rescue stickers is key."
  • Do you crate your dog? It's a good idea to ensure that the crate is near the front door so that they are easily seen. (Don't forget to leave leashes near the door.) With older dogs, vision and hearing problems can make a stressful situation even more scary. Ditto for young puppies: they can become skittish.
  • Does your dog have the run of the house in your absence? Basar said in that case, "Consider a doggy door. If your backyard is fenced, or if your dog has been trained with an electronic fencing system, it's a viable option for your dog to have access to a doggy door so that they can safely get out of the home."
  • Outdoor dog pens are a great way for dogs to enjoy the outdoors, but if they are installed right next to a dwelling, it can be problematic — especially if the house is totally involved in flames. Hoeft recommends that if you do utilize an outdoor run or a pen, to do so away from the home to minimize risk to the dog.
  • Think about where you live: are you in the country, far away from neighbors and traffic? Or are you in an area where passersby might have a better chance of seeing that there is trouble at your home? These things might be a consideration in having a smoke alarm system installed, which in many cases is part of a home security alarm system anyway.
  • Several of the fire/rescue professionals noted that purchasing a Knox Box might be helpful. Although they are usually geared toward commercial buildings, those in a residential setting could benefit from having one. Contact your local fire department for information. The information that you include inside could be crucial in assisting fire/rescue in helping your pets make it out safely.

After the rescue, smoke inhalation is the main issue that pets face in a house fire. Although they are incredibly resilient and have good instincts to avoid the smoke as best as possible, a stressful situation like a fire causes pets to breathe more quickly, and in the case of dogs to pant and bark. This of course means a higher incidence of smoke inhalation.

Fortunately, most fire departments in Washtenaw County have a way to help assist and revive pets who have been overcome by smoke — pet oxygen masks. An oxygen mask is used the same way on humans and pets alike. The only caveat: the shape of a pet's snout is obviously very different than a face of a human. Enter the pet oxygen mask. Designed to fit the face with a proper seal to deliver oxygen, they come in a variety of sizes.

Hoeft noted that the oxygen mask kit that his department has was generously donated. Ditto for the Ann Arbor Fire Department. In the case of the Saline Area Fire Department, Dr. Kathy VanKoevering, of Paws Mobile Veterinary Service, donated a kit purchased from a nonprofit, HELP Animals Inc. Chamberlain, as well as Gretchen Virlee-Wagner, with Ann Arbor Fire Services, stated that "Be assured that we make every effort to save pets during a house fire," and because of a donation of Ann Arbor Fire Department's kit, pets can benefit further. Chelsea Area Fire Authority, whose Open House is October 10, and Scio Township Fire Department also have oxygen kits.

Augusta Charter Township Fire Department will also be hosting its open house on Oct. 9.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stresses that putting together an emergency preparedness kit for your pet is essential. Think about having current photos of your pets stored somewhere in case they do run off in the midst of the chaos (most mobile phones have a camera feature these days). Safe Harbor is a Humane Society of Huron Valley program for pet owners experiencing a housing emergency such as eviction, disaster or domestic violence. Animals can stay for a limited period of time while alternative housing is secured. Please call 734-662-5585 to find out more.

Lorrie Shaw is a dog walker and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, and is a regular contributor to's pet section with her blog, More Than Four Walls, where she examines topics ranging from social issues, behavior and, of course, pet health and safety. Reach her via e-mail and follow her on Twitter @psa2


Lorrie Shaw

Mon, Oct 18, 2010 : 3:39 p.m.

Thanks for taking the time to comment. And yes, EVERYONE need to have a plan, regardless of where they live. So important. The firefighters that I spoke with were so helpful, forthcoming and are there to help. Don't forget to test those batteries when we 'fall back', soon!


Fri, Oct 8, 2010 : 1:45 p.m.

Great advice, too bad too many don't make such plans or considerations for themselves and their family members beforehand let alone their pets. Or get fire extinguishers, keep fresh batteries in smoke/monoxide detectors, get collapsible ladders for second/thrid story rooms etc etc etc... 1*