Kitty fire drill!
March 16, 2011 7:59 AM   Subscribe

I know it sounds ridiculous, but I really want to have a kitty cat fire drill. In case of emergency, I need to be prepared to wrangle my three cats and get out FAST.

Two nights ago, there was a fire in my apartment high rise. The rest of my stuff can burn to the ground for all I care - the only thing I give a crap about is the safety of me and my cats. However, in a real world situation, with people screaming from balconies and running around yelling fire and the smell of smoke coming down the stairwell, as well as the logistics of wrangling three freaked out cats while even their carriers were disassembled (I know, stupid!) I had to just leave them and get out myself.

I was lucky; the fire was 3 floors above my unit, everyone got out safely (although some were trapped on balconies are were rescued by the fire department) and I didn't even get any smoke/water damage. My cats are fine, probably less stressed out than I am. But the whole situation has got me freaked, and if I ever have to stand across the street watching black smoke billowing from my building while worrying about my cats again, I need to know that I did everything in my power to get them out as well.

Obviously, I've reassembled the carriers, and now have them in an easily accessible place. Is there any thing else I could do other than making loud noises somehow and then getting them used to being herded up quickly? Two of the three shouldn't be too hard, but my third dumbass cat won't even let me pick her up in the best of situations; I can't imagine this ever even working, but I have to try.

Yes, I know this makes me sound like the insane crazy cat lady, but I'm okay with that. But mefites always seem to have such great ideas and solutions...

(Oh, here's my usual obligatory pic - i need a new one!)
posted by cgg to Pets & Animals (37 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
I'd work on training the three of them to come to you at the same time. Do they already swarm into the same place when you open a can of cat food? Are they all attracted to catnip? You may want to find something that calls them all to you, rather than trying to herd them. It may be difficult to keep calm in an emergency, but I think rounding them all up in a calm, collected manner by using positive reinforcement that you've practiced might work better.
posted by xingcat at 8:04 AM on March 16, 2011

I don't have any magical advice for the herding, but just wanted to say having carriers ready to go is a must, and also this is NOT crazy. Everyone should have an emergency plan in place for these kinds of situations (and the plan should certainly include beloved pets). Ain't no shame!
posted by hansbrough at 8:04 AM on March 16, 2011

If carriers are inaccessible, you traditionally throw each cat in a (separate) pillowcase for speedy containment and evacuation. You can knot the top of the pillowcase if necessary.

They won't like it, but they can breathe in there fine and will get out alive.

Also, and someone else will know far more about it, but I was somewhat surprised to learn when my neighbors down the street had a housewife last fall that the fire department had pet care equipment on the truck and firefighters trained in using it ... their dumb-ass dog kept trying to run back in the house and had to have oxygen and had to be restrained, and there were firefighters there clearly trained and experienced in caring for family pets during a fire. And the second thing they asked after making sure all the people were out was whether all the pets were out too. (Fido is fine, BTW.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:05 AM on March 16, 2011 [17 favorites]

Awesome picture. And I don't think this makes you sound like the insane crazy cat lady, it's a really responsible thing to think about in advance.

Second, I think it's more important for you to be the one who's prepared. Having the carriers ready is great - have you practiced carrying all three down the stairs by yourself? I think it's too much to expect them to be ok with being herded around and picked up quickly. My cats don't like being picked up either, but I keep trying for just this reason. Have a towel with the carriers so you can grab the gal who won't let you pick her up so you can wrap her up if you need to. Do you have treats that you can start giving them, that they really like so they come when you shake the container? If not, maybe start doing that - and keep some with the carriers.
posted by lemniskate at 8:06 AM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Before we were married, my wife had a toaster fire in her apartment. That alone was a weird story - one of the cats dropped a few business cards off the shelf into the toaster and then somehow managed to press the level and turn it on!

One of the cats was a crazy purebred siamese that would usually fully attack if you tried to put her in a kennel but that night, with smoke, flashing lights and alarms blaring she had no problem quicky putting both of them in a small kennel before running out the door. I had a hard time believing she was able to do it so quickly but she assures me it was near instant. Cats are smart.
posted by jeffmik at 8:07 AM on March 16, 2011

I have a large tote bag with a few emergency cat supplies in it - a few cans of food, a couple of plastic cat dishes, a mini litter box & liners, paper towels - in a handy place in the house. I've got a small bag of litter in the car (though that was also in case I needed it for traction this past winter). One cat carrier is under the kitchen table and I figure I could wrangle both cats into it in a pinch if I had to. So what if they're briefly uncomfortable. (I like the pillowcase idea, too.)

Do your cats come running when you shake a bag of treats? Maybe that's something you could do to get them to come to you in a hurry.
posted by dywypi at 8:08 AM on March 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

housewife = housefire, obvs. Doh.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:08 AM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

THIS IS NOT RIDICULOUS. Don't apologize for caring about your animals, ever. I have no idea how to deal with cats, but I've many times thought through what I'd do in the event of an emergency to ensure the safety of my yellow Lab. Good for you, and stay safe.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 8:09 AM on March 16, 2011 [6 favorites]

I have done this with my three cats. As all disaster-planners I have ever worked with say, just having run through a drill makes you more prepares than most people. it helps me sleep better.

What I do for the drill is: close the bedroom door. If one is not in the room, I go get him or her. I give myself two minutes to track her down. Then scoop them one, two, three into their carriers, and we're good to go. But my cats are easy. They're sociable; they don't hide, and they are accustomed to the alarm noise (our doorbuzzer sounds like the alarm).

An alternative is to practice scooping them into pillow cases. They'll be fine in an emergency in pillow cases. Pillow cases are easy to carry in an emergency. You just need to be sure you use very long pillow cases (so you can tie them closed) or that you have something to secure them closed. Then you can go to your car and set them free in the car (if you have one), for instance.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:10 AM on March 16, 2011

This is not even a little bit ridiculous. It's such a great idea and we should all be doing it!

Getting some "bait" to get them to you as xingcat is really smart, and you should also have a bag of important kitty supplies to grab and take with you. Cans or sealed bags of food, bottle of water, a few little bowls (paper disposables?), mini litter pan or even a cardboard box (like a shirt box) and some litter?

For the difficult cat, you could have some heavy duty long gloves so you can grab her and chuck her in the carrier without having to deal with bites and scratches on top of the chaos of another emergency. (My vet uses big hawk-handling/welding gloves for my cat. Works great.)
posted by dayintoday at 8:11 AM on March 16, 2011

I think it's a great idea. Our smoke alarm goes off when I cook sometimes, and our kitty ALWAYS hides in the same place, and is easily scoopable, so she's easy. I think bait is a great idea.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:12 AM on March 16, 2011

When we lived in an apartment building the smoke alarms went off every few months and we figured out what Karl does in that case. She always ran to the same spot of safety, so we'd just grab her carrier, go to her spot and scoop her up.

Now that we live in a house and have three cats, this discussion makes me want to test our alarms in our house and see where the cats run to figure out where they run.
posted by advicepig at 8:12 AM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

At our hospital we have a number of mesh laundry-type bags easily accessible for evacuating cats. You could use pillowcases as well. The advantage is that they take up much less space than an assembled carrier, and it is easier to carry multiple bags than it is to carry multiple carriers. You can also just kind of swoop down on them with the bag/pillowcase and they are ready to go, as opposed to picking them up and then shoving them into a carrier.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:13 AM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

You should film your fire drill and put it on YouTube for both educational and entertainment purposes.
posted by goethean at 8:13 AM on March 16, 2011 [36 favorites]

Our carriers are assembled and in the laundry room. I can drag them out pretty fast if I need to. Which, I did, because we had a tornado warning, and I had to go all panic room with the furkids. The #1 thing that made it possible to get them in the carriers was that #1, the one cat actually loves the damn things, so she just went in the carrier; #2 they love treats, and the treat bag shaking over-rides the OMG STORM NOISE response. So treat training, and offer them treats for going in the carrier. If they are at all carrier-phobic, leave the carriers out with towels or whatever snuggly things they like. They will eventually wander in, and as long as you don't immediately trap them inside, they might come to view the carriers as Fun Places to Sleep (which, ours do at this point).

I'm sorry you had a scare, but it's good to be prepared. I cannot imagine a man in a big scary fireman's suit could get our cats to come out at all, so I feel like we have to be totally prepared to get them out.
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:15 AM on March 16, 2011

Believe it or not, for absolutely no reason i was thinking about EXACTLY THIS while lying in bed last night. The carriers are in a back room and the treats that can pull my cats out of a coma are easily accessible for bargaining; if they were scared I'd grab any bit of laundry and use it to grab them and wrap them up to manhandle them into the carriers if needs be.
And then I thought about how to save my laptop but trust me, it was in second place.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:19 AM on March 16, 2011

Also, you can get a free pet safety kit by filling this out.
posted by Pax at 8:25 AM on March 16, 2011

Long ago, before I had a cat carrier, a pillowcase is what I used to transport my cat to and from my car for moving/vet visits. I've since purchased a carrier, but still use the pillowcase (which is also libreally pre-rubbed with catnip). A quick pillowcase capture makes for a nice bundle that can be easily popped into a carrier (because claws can still get you through the pillowcase). My cat quickly finds his way out of the pillowcase and relaxes once he realizes he's in the carrier.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 8:32 AM on March 16, 2011

OK, so I haven't done the fire drill, but both my cats will come running if I put down a box and throw cat treats into it. The trick here is that it can't be a box that's been hanging around for awhile - it's not interesting. It has to be new to them. Pre-punch some holes in it, stick it in a closet, and have duct tape nearby. The BEST would be a computer box that has handles cut into the side. When it's time to go, take it out of the closet, throw cat treats in, and tape shut.

also: fuckyeahblackcats!!
posted by desjardins at 8:37 AM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

One more data point to suggest that the cats will be cooperative. There was a housefire in my highrise a few years ago. I only had one cat carrier for my two cats, and managed to get both of them (a 14 pounder and a 10 pounder who hate each other) into the carrier together. They were super cooperative, which is very unusual. Normally, I can't get either one to go near the carrier, but I think they sensed my panic, and knew something was up due to the vague smoke smell.

I can laugh at it now - one guy's leg and tail was wrapped around the other's one's face. It was like bonsai kitty but in a cat carrier.

I know have two carriers accessible in the event of kitty emergencies, and feel secure that I know I can get them out if I have to.
posted by slmorri at 8:41 AM on March 16, 2011

Okay, I have the impression that cats are less trainable than dogs... but could you possibly teach them to run into their carriers when the fire alarm goes off? I'm sure having the fire alarm go off daily would be incredibly annoying to your neighbors, but maybe you could use a recording that sounds like the alarm but quieter.

If the kitties are at all food motivated, perhaps you could play the alarm sound and toss a favorite treat into their carriers. Do they each have their own? Could they be convinced to learn which is theirs? It'd be easy to teach a dog to do this in about a week--most dogs, anyway--and then to practice maybe once a month or every few months to reinforce it; could it be done with cats?

Have you gone over what it will take to get you and three carriers out of the building? Might be worth some thought also.

This is, by the way, an excellent idea. I attended a barn fire safety seminar a while ago, and one of their suggestions was to practice anything we might need in the event of a fire. They had all sorts of great suggestions, like teaching horses to walk calmly with a towel over their heads so they can't see (since horses so often panic in a fire, and ordinarily would panic if they couldn't see, as well). It's never necessary to be embarrassed about being prepared :)
posted by galadriel at 8:43 AM on March 16, 2011

This is sort of indirect, but it might be worth shooting Concolora a memail about this. She seems to know a lot about click training with cats, and it probably wouldn't take too much effort to train your cats to run in the carrier when you give them the appropriate signal or something.
posted by invitapriore at 9:04 AM on March 16, 2011

Although you already have a carrier, you might want to look into getting at least one soft carrier that has a shoulder strap. This, unlike pillowcases, leaves your hands free to wrangle additional cats/things. I take tornado sirens very seriously, so I've hauled the cat, my bird and two degus down to the basement single-handedly twice in the past year. This is possilbe only with the shoulderstrap. as the degu/bird escape pod is bulky.
Do some drills, figure out if you can get multiple cats into one container, and actually carry all of them yourself.
If you really want to freak them out with the drills, pack them up, put them in the car and drive them to the vet's. When you pull up, turn to them and say "just kidding!" and then drive home.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:21 AM on March 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

My concern for you is not how to get them in the carriers, but as others have suggested: how are you going to carry three carriers by yourself?

This might be a situation in which a larger, single carrier would work well. Something like this would be perfect, as you can more easily stuff an unwilling kitty into the top of a carrier much easier than from the front (I speak from years of experience!). I don't know if that one in particular is large enough, but it really wouldn't have to be huge because they wouldn't be spending days and days in it. I think it would be simpler to have only one carrier to keep track of. As a matter of fact, I think I'm going to go investigate larger carriers for my guys. I have four, so two would have to share each carrier.

And? This is so not ridiculous!
posted by cooker girl at 9:23 AM on March 16, 2011

my trick to get my cats to come to me is to train them that a certain squeaktoy noise means TUNA OMG TREATS AND STUFF.

although i have no idea how well this would work in great noise and chaos.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:26 AM on March 16, 2011

This is one of the best things I've read in a while, and add me to the list of people who need to think about things like this and didn't.
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:54 AM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yep, I've been there. I've had to evacuate with my cats twice, once due to earthquake, and once to fire. I keep their carriers easy to grab, like at the bottom of a closet or something. It's okay to stack towels or whatever on top, because you can grab the crates by the wire mesh door and yank them out. Just don't block them in with other stuff, that you will have to paw away.

If your cats won't (or can't) share a carrier, consider getting one of those folding wheelie carts. I had one at one point, and kept the carriers lashed to it with bungee cords. I lived on the 5th floor of an apartment building, and being able to wheel the cats down the stairs like furniture made it a lot easier.

When disaster strikes, you would think cats would flee, but the cats look to you for their cues. They know that Something Bad Is Happening. Both of mine, while difficult to crate for a vet visit, uncomplainingly let me scoop them up and pop them in the carriers. So take heart - the cats will probably make it easy on you in a real emergency.

Unfortunately it also means that it's kind of futile to practice a fire drill.

The most important thing you can do is rehearse your actions. Plan it out in your head. Walk through the steps you will take. Get so you have it memorized in your head.

Then when disaster strikes, focus on The Drill. This is what you have trained for. Take a deep breath, don't let yourself get distracted or panicky, and put your plan into action.

Once you're all out safe on the sidewalk, you have plenty of time to panic!
posted by ErikaB at 10:08 AM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the people assuring you that kitties will cooperate in an actual emergency have overlooked that your kitties were NOT cooperative in an actual emergency just two days ago.

Panicked animals may freak out and freeze up; this can be really helpful. Panicked animals may also fight like their lives depend on it. Or run and hide where you can't reach. Or any of several other, unpredictable and dangerous responses. Hence, it makes sense to have things lined up so that you, and they, all know the drill when the emergency comes. You can't rely on an animal having the right response by instinct, because the instinct can be all over the place.

Practicing a drill means that you all have a known and comfortable method in an emergency. Known and comfortable makes it more likely you will have cooperation from frightened animals.
posted by galadriel at 10:30 AM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a career firefighter, and I think it's a good idea to make a pet plan. As someone who is ridiculously devoted to his dog, I would find it agonizing, perhaps impossible to abandon my home without her. But as you make your plan, understand that the delay in leaving your home could kill you. Conditions can change instantly in a fire. One moment, you're looking for your cat with a light haze in the room, and then you are lost and choking in impenetrable smoke that reaches down to the floor.

I hate to make this caveat, because I can't be certain I'd obey it myself, but I think it's necessary to consider. If you can't help your pet (can't find them, can't get them into a carrier), you must recognize when you're in danger of dying in vain. Remember the plan, but don't follow it blindly, ignoring mounting danger until you can't do anything to help yourself or your pets.

That said, one thing to consider is that if you have to escape via a balcony, you might be clambering on to an aerial ladder (the kind mounted on a truck) or, on the lower floors, a conventional ladder up to about 35 feet, and escorted down with a firefighter behind you. Few people would be comfortable climbing down under emergency conditions while holding two or three carriers; you're going to want all your hands and you might wish you had a few extra as well. So, the key is having a package that's as easy to carry as possible, ideally one that could also be handed off to a firefighter. I think placing all the cats in one long pillow, tied shut with a loop in which s/he could easily slip a large, gloved hand, seems like a good solution. Better yet, tie a short length of rope around the knot that can be used as a handle, or placed over the shoulder. Unpleasant for the cats, but hopefully brief and certainly preferable to leaving them behind.

There may be other solutions. I'll mention this to my colleagues and get their perspective as well.

Of course, carrying them down the steps in a couple carriers would be better, if conditions allow.
posted by itstheclamsname at 10:30 AM on March 16, 2011 [16 favorites]

Absolutely make a plan! Pillowcases are a great idea, especially if you're in bed when the alarm goes off. I keep my cats' carriers out and open around the house for them to nap in, so that they don't associate them with Scary Vet Times. This also means they're at hand if we need to get out quick.

HOWEVER, galadriel makes an excellent point which I can emphatically back up with experience: Panicked animals may also fight like their lives depend on it. Or run and hide where you can't reach.

Two winters ago, something went wrong with the heater and it got to the point where our house was filling with smoke and the alarms were going off. The clingy Siamese was actually sitting by one of the floor vents like, "hey, uh, guys? You might want to look into this." So she went right into her carrier. The two much larger, much more timid cats? Well, I still have a two-inch-long scar down my forearm where the 20-pound cat wrenched himself from my arms as I tried to slip him into his carrier. He then dove under the (heavy) couch, which was amazing considering how round he is. Before we could get hands on him, his brother squeezed into the gap between our under-bed storage drawers and refused to come out, even for canned tuna, over four hours later.

Fortunately, there was no actual fire, so they were safe, but my husband and I have come to terms with the fact that if the house burns down, they're going with it. I think their abject terror came from a combination of factors: the horrible loud alarm noise, the smoke smell, and our anxiety (though we tried to behave calmly, they could probably still sense it). Our revised plan includes leaving the doors & windows open as we evacuate so that they will hopefully make it out on their own. There's also one of those stickers on the front window that lists the animals in the house.

Sorry; that's a long story, huh? I just wanted to provide a data point for "no matter how prepared you think you are, cats are crazy." I'm actually really impressed by everyone else's brave pets! So yes, be prepared for evacuation, but also maybe be prepared for chaos. And get one of those stickers. Then the firemen will be prepared, too!
posted by Fui Non Sum at 11:18 AM on March 16, 2011

Response by poster: OMG, you people are amazing. I feel so much better even thinking about all the ideas, solutions and stories of animal survival. Pillowcases, check! I didn't even think of that. I'm going to make a cat survival kit, with three of these, some food, etc. For whatever reason, my herd isn't really food motivated, but I'm sure I can come up with some treat they'll all go nuts for and maybe even come for. I also love the idea of a soft carrier. I currently have two of the hard ones; one's a beast and can fit all three in, the other is a tiny small one when just one goes to the vet. The big one is really difficult for me to carry with 3*12 lbs of cat though (I bought it when 2 were kittens and a heck of a lot smaller!). I'm thinking maybe I'll also get something like this backpack that I could also get all three in in an emergency. I'm also going to email my vet and make sure their tattoo info is up to date, and get those stickers. Thank you so much for all the amazing suggestions. I haven't marked any as best answer because they all are!
posted by cgg at 11:53 AM on March 16, 2011

Seconding suggestions to get the cats comfortable being together in a carrier. Start in pairs, and work up to having all three in a carrier.

As noted, carrying three boxes filled with cat is a pain. In comparison, one box overloaded with angry jiggling cat is surprisingly easy to carry.

Nthing use of treats to accomplish the ease of boxing the cats. And keep that container of treats in a cat carrier, so that in a real emergency you aren't searching the kitchen for kitty treats. (Just make sure to rotate the treats out. Rancid cat food is disgusting.)
posted by bilabial at 12:06 PM on March 16, 2011

I make a loud kissing noise everytime I'm about to feed my 3 cats, and they come running. At this point, the same noise is useful anytime I want to round them up, or get them to come to me.
posted by coolguymichael at 1:14 PM on March 16, 2011

I like the idea of training them with treats and I would take it a step further. I would train your kitties that when the fire alarm goes off that treats are in their cat carriers.

So I would take these steps. Set out the cat carriers in the place where you will keep them, even perhaps a closet with the doors open. I would put treats in the carriers and then pull the fire alarm. For the first time I would probably put the treats on the outside of the carrier and also get them used to the fire alarm sound. So incrementally they won't associate the sound with fear but with treats.
posted by aetg at 3:06 PM on March 16, 2011

Do your cats come running when you shake a bag of treats?

I haven't had to get my cats out of a house-on-fire situation, but this is exactly the technique I use when one of the little buggers gets someplace they shouldn't be. I use treats like this where the container is part of the trick, when shaken it makes a noise that every one of my four cats has come to believe means that if they come to me, life will be great. (and when I say "come to me" I mean at a dead sprint. This stuff is like kitty-crack. I can summon them from the other side of the house now.)

I'll also Nth the pillowcases as improvised kennels, but you may also want to look into soft sided collapsible cat carriers; they are going to take up less space that the hard sided ones, and will be easier to get a scared animal into than a pillowcase.

Wherever you keep these things, also keep a flashlight. If you are dealing with an emergency situation, it's never a bad idea to have a spare flashlight on hand.
posted by quin at 3:38 PM on March 16, 2011

Didn't read all responses, so I apologize if this is duplicative.

Order a Pet Safety Kit from the ASPCA. It's free and it includes a rescue sticker to put on/next to your door, in the event you can't get your cats out, the fire fighters will know there are pets to be rescued inside.

Googling "cat evacuation plan" comes up with a ton of cat-specific ideas for quickly leaving your house in an emergency.

Glad your kitties were safe this time!
posted by melissasaurus at 5:09 AM on March 17, 2011

Response by poster: This thread is still open, so I'll update. We had *another* fire in my apartment building last night. Not nearly as dramatic as the one a few months ago, but once again, it involved getting out, and quickly.

I'm happy to say it went a lot smoother this time (relatively). I bought this pet backpack last time. Herding the cats into it was a bit of a challenge (I'm scratched up quite a bit, and the closet door is now busted...), but once I got them in a bedroom I was able to wrangle all three in, where they remarkably calmed down quite a bit. Of course, carrying 3 chunky cats in a backpack down 24 flights of stairs wasn't exactly pleasant, but at least this time both myself and my cats were safe, had it been a more severe emergency. I wish I didn't have to go through it again, but I'm actually glad to know that if I do need to get out with the furrballs, it is possible.

Thanks again ask-mefiers! :)
posted by cgg at 10:22 AM on October 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

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