After two years of researching the fallout from the devastating wildfires in Fort McMurray, a Mount Royal University professor has compiled a list of recommendations to improve the likelihood pets remain with their owners and survive natural disasters.

Kimberly Williams, a pet owner herself, was troubled to discover how frequently companion animals are ignored or abandoned during wildfires, floods and other disastrous events. The professor interviewed first responders as well as pet owners who were caught in the Fort McMurray wildfires and concluded that preventative steps could have been taken to improve animal welfare.

“I talked to RCMP officers and firefighters,” explained Williams. “People who had evacuated with their pets and people who didn’t, who had to leave their pets.  People who found their pets later and then couldn’t find housing.”

The professor of women’s and gender studies witnessed pet owners being separated from their animals in New Orleans during a visit to Louisiana alongside a colleague who teaches the sociology of disaster.

“New Orleans, during Hurricane Katrina, did not have an evacuation plan for pets,” said Williams of the oversight that resulted in 50,000 forcibly abandoned pets “There weren’t structures in place for people to be able to evacuate with pets. Literally, people were not able to get onto buses if they were holding their dogs or their cats or their hamsters.”

The professor is sharing her findings with local officials as well as representatives worldwide and implores all emergency agencies to include an animal welfare specialist when command centres are opened during a disaster.  She would also like pet licensing information to be available to emergency officials.

Williams’ report has garnered international recognition. “It’s also on the United Nations website which is kind of exciting. It’s on their list of disaster management, particularly around animals, so it will be internationally resourced.”

Williams encourages all pet owners to create a disaster plan and to prepare emergency kits for their animals in addition to kits for the rest of the family. “Have that 72-hour kit that all the emergency management people say we should have. Have it packed for people, have it packed for animals, know where all the things are and be able to mobilize and get out if you need to.”

With files from CTV's Kevin Fleming