Disaster! Planning for Emergencies

Red emergency button
10 Apr, 2020
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We are currently living in Interesting Times.

Many of us, especially those of us who live alone, have turned their thoughts to what might happen to our animals should we fall ill.

A couple of weeks ago, Vectis Hamstery had just that happen. I’d like to share a few learning points from my experience that hopefully will help you get your own plans in place (although I hope you never need to enact them).

If you’re finding all the pandemic stuff too worrying, alarming or just having a Glum Day then please don’t read this! It’ll be here when, and if, you want to look at it later. Instead, check out this blog on making making your hamster’s meal time more entertaining.

Why I had Emergency Procedures

Back in 2018, I was sent copies of the draft Animal Activities Licensing guidelines (in my role as Secretary of the National Hamster Council). Those of you who know me, know that I make my own entertainment when left unsupervised, and the long Easter bank holiday that year was once such occasion!

How would I spend four days of not being at work? Aha! I could read the 80-plus page guidance document and then write my own set of procedures for the hamstery  – just to see what it was like! The main care procedures turned into a useful manual for the petsitters who look after the hamsters when I am away.

However, the emergency procedures got tucked away on a shelf. They were just a silly intellectual exercise, I thought. Something more applicable to a pet shop with staff rather than a little hamstery like mine.

Making your own Emergency Procedures

This blog isn’t going to tell you exactly what you should write in your own plans – and that is intentional!

Emergency procedures and plans should be individual to your own situation. I hope to give you some areas to think about so you have somewhere to start.

Someone who has one hamster will have a very different set of emergency needs than someone like me who has, ahem, many! Someone whose hamstery is in an outbuilding likewise has different issues to plan for than someone using a room in the house.

As I mentioned, my starting point was the Animal Activities Licencing guidance. This listed several emergency situations, for example loss of power/ water and fire. However, as I have discovered, it was not a comprehensive list of potential disasters. It clearly stated that “where emergencies are potentially life threatening, humans must not be put at risk attempting to remove animals.” I think this is an important thing to remember when making your plans, hard as it is to reconcile with our love of our animals.

Disaster Scenarios

First spend some time thinking of which potential emergency situations you may encounter. What is important or likely for you may well be different for someone else. For example, some hamster owners need to plan for dangerous weather events like tornadoes or flooding, whereas that is unlikely to be an issue here.

I’ve included a list of the scenarios I have plans for at the end of this blog for inspiration!

Access

Think about how someone would gain access to your hamsters if you were suddenly unwell. Who is your emergency keyholder? How far away are they? Is their phone number easy to find? This is especially important if you live alone.

Record Keeping

Since you are reviewing your records, have a think about your current hamster records. If someone had to come in and look after your hamsters, how do they know which hamster is which? Are any specific care needs clear? For example, health problems or pregnancies.

Here, each hamster has a cage label detailing their name, date of birth, origin and health issues. There is also the Hamster List which has more information on species, colour and handling requirements, and the Hamster Folder where each hamster’s individual records and pedigrees are kept. It may sound a little old-fashioned to keep it all in paper form, but no passwords are needed and it is quick to retrieve and take away in an emergency.

Share your Plans

Once you have made your plan, share it! This was my big oversight…

Although we had discussed in general terms my emergency plans, I had failed to email them out to those who really needed to know them. Understandably this added a level of stress to an already difficult situaiton that I could have easily avoided. 

Instead of tucking the plans away in a dark corner, hoping you never need to use them, make them obvious! My new and improved version is now pinned to the hamster room door and each page is laminated for easy disinfection.

Preparedness

I’m someone who likes to plan. You may have noticed that by now! Therefore I find it reassuring to be prepared for worst-case scenarios. I don’t go overboard with being prepared, but a few little things help ease my mind in case of some sudden unexpected emergency.

  • Using a larger water bottle than needed, or two smaller water bottles.
  • Ensuring hamsters have a good food store (which is also a natural behaviour of hamsters so is part of providing for their welfare needs).

This will last my hamsters a few days to a week and, although not ideal care in normal circumstances, will help them survive in an extreme situation.

For me as a breeder another part of being prepared is keeping a visible note (on cages or on the whiteboard) of which cages have breeding pairs of the dwarf hamsters or litters. In the event of an emergency, these cages will need additional attention.

Final Thoughts

Although I love to plan, I don’t want to suggest that you need to sit and worry about every terrible thing that might befall you or your hamsters. Much of this blog may not apply to you and that’s fine. Pick and choose the things you find useful; your mileage may vary!

Remember that you need to look after your own wellbeing. We are very good at prioritising our hamsters’ needs, but they rely on us to stay as well as we can, both physically and psychologically. Reach out to your support network and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Disaster Inspiration!

The new and improved Vectis Hamstery Emergency Procedures now cover the following situations:
Human Contagious Illness (aka coronavirus plan)

The plan you make for in the event the human has a contagious illness would depend on the illness in question and its mode of transmission. For the majority of human infectious illnesses, there would be very little risk to other humans entering to care for hamsters. COVID-19 is a special situation.

It is, however, worth assessing the risk and considering:

  • Is it safe to enter the hamster room at all? Human safety is paramount.
  • Who would be coming in to provide care to the hamsters? Are they vulnerable to the condition? In this current pandemic, might you need to reconsider who your emergency keyholder is if they are particularly at risk or shielding?
  • If there is risk to the human but it is safe to enter, how can the risk be minimised? For example, good hand hygeine, changing clothing, use of protective equipment or restricting the amount of exposure time.
  • Can the hamster area be accessed without exposure to other areas of the home where the unwell human has been?
  • What is the minimum essential care (and therefore exposure of human caregivers to risk) that is needed on each visit, and how often?
  • In the extreme situation where it is not safe for humans to access the hamster room for a period of time, what measures can help enable maximum survival of the hamsters?

A little note on protective equipment: 

Following two mite outbreaks here in 2017/18 I suffered from an abundence of caution and re-worked my quarantine plans. As a result I bought in plastic aprons, gloves and masks to cover any contagious eventuality.

In the current pandemic, do not buy personal protective equipment (PPE) for use with your hamsters!

Vectis Hamstery’s position is that the event of a shortage of PPE locally, the hamster room PPE will be donated to frontline medical staff. Even if this is to the detriment of the hamsters. Currently local healthcare services have no need of part-opened packs of PPE with woodshavings that I have coughed on. If that changes, I will willingly give them away.

Food Supply Failure

I’ve put this higher up in the list at the moment as it could become a concern as the lockdown progresses.

What do you do if there is no hamster food to buy and you are running out?

In the first instance, accept any brand or type of hamster food! An emergency is not a time to be particular about percentages. The aim is survival of the hamsters and any hamster food is better than no hamster food.

Crisis Feeding

The following feeding suggestions are definitely not an ideal or optimal diet. They are not something I recommend doing outside of an extreme situation and for the shortest possible time. Where possible supplement with additional vitamins and minerals to mitigate the unbalanced nature of the crisis diet.

If there is no hamster mix, you could use gerbil, mouse or rabbit food in the short term, boosting it with extras.

If you cannot find any commercial small pet foods, you can mix together other commonly available items such as budgie seed, hemp seed, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, dog/cat kibble, dried pasta. You can also feed or supplement with kitchen leftovers, for example cooked rice/pasta/cous cous/noodles with meat and vegetables. You will need to feed small amounts of wet food to prevent stomach upsets, and the hamsters will need cleaning more often.

Try to consider what nutritional elements are needed and cover as much as possible, but accept that in this disaster situation basic survival is the goal.

Fire

The main point is that in the event of fire, humans must ensure their own safety.

Think about:

  • emergency escape for any humans
  • evacuation plans (if safe) for the hamsters
  • if not possible to evacuate the hamsters, how can risk from smoke be reduced?
  • Be aware of how to call the fire brigade in your area. 
  • Is there a fire assembly point?
Power/Water Supply Failure

What would you do if there was a prolonged interruption of water or a power cut?

Power Failure

Do you have additional lighting, such as torches? I don’t like the idea of trying to light the hamster room with candles due to the risk of fire with all the bedding.

How would a power cut affect your heating or cooling arrangements? Do you have non-powered alternative strategies?

Water Supply

Consider if this is a significant risk for you. You may choose not to be concerned if you have easy access to a nearby source of bottled water in case of emergency. There are several local supermarkets near Vectis Hamstery which is very convenient!

However, your situation may be such that you choose to store a small amount of bottled water just in case. 

Temperature Extremes (Heat and Cold)

What temperature would be an issue, both too hot and too cold? How do you monitor this?

Extreme Cold

What provisions for heating for the hamsters do you have? Is this on a timer or thermostat?

What methods would you use to ensure the hamsters remain warm? For example, closing the curtains of the room or adding extra nesting material.

How would you manage a Syrian hamster who has gone into torpor?

If you plan to use a heat mat/Snugglesafe/hot water bottle as part of your plans, remember never to place an unconscious hamster directly on the heat source to prevent over-heating.

Extreme Heat

What actions do you have available to you to keep the hamsters safe and comfortable? For example, a fan or air conditioning unit.

You can find tips on helping hamsters in hot weather here.

Contagious Disease in the Hamster Room

Like with the human contagious illness plan, what precautions you need to take will depend on the type of contagious hamster illness.

This is a whole blog topic by itself which you can read more on here.

Hospitalisation of Owner

How in depth your planning for this section is really depends on your situation.

Who is your emergency contact for hamster care? 

Do they know how to care for at least the basic needs of your hamsters?  If so, then that makes things much easier! If you aren’t sure, then you may need to write a care guide or at least find a basic leaflet (you are welcome to use the Vectis Hamstery care leaflet download if you need to).

Check out the ‘record keeping’  and ‘preparedness’ sections in the main blog post.

Emergency Rehoming

This is the most unpleasant scenario to think about. 

What would happen if suddenly all of your hamsters had to find new homes?

Who could co-ordinate this? Who can help? Do you have any preferences about where your hamsters would go (or clear thoughts about where you do not want them to go)?

My preferences are stated both in my emergency procedures and also in my will, just to be super clear!

Alien Invasion
In case of alien invasion:
  • Prepare multiple 30 minute Powerpoint presentations covering topics such as hamster species, housing, feeding, show standards, and a slideshow of photos of every hamster I have ever owned or seen.
  • Place bench outside hamster room patio doors.
  • Barricade self in hamster room with laptop.
  • Do not open the doors.
  • Instruct aliens to sit on the bench and show aliens each presentation through the glass until eventually they cry out for mercy and go away.
  • Ensure they take a hamster leaflet and Club membership form before they leave. Whether they want it or not.
Only joking!
Well done if you’ve got this far through the blog!

 

On a positive note, the Vectis human is on the road to recovery and making steady progress. 

Stay safe! 

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