Animals can often sense storms, which may make them anxious and distressed and thus more likely to run away. Some pick up on stress from their owners, which can also cause an otherwise well-behaved animal to suddenly flee.
And Harvey, which made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, is no normal storm—it may dump a record-setting 50 inches of rain on parts of coastal Texas from Sunday to Thursday. (See pictures of Harvey's catastrophic destruction.)
“Pets are much more likely to try and make an escape during stressful situations,” says Pamela Reid, an animal behaviorist with the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), who specializes in natural disaster work.
In 2005, during Hurricane Katrina, up to 100,000 pets were separated from their owners, and fewer than half were reunited. Some reported that they didn't evacuate because they were unable to take their pets.
In response, the U.S. Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act in 2006, which requires states seeking assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to incorporate plans for pets.
Predicting how any animal will behave in a crisis is impossible, she adds, but pets usually do one of four things: Escape; hide far away from people; seek reassurance from their owners; or—in rarer cases—become aggressive, even toward those who may be trying to help.
Some owners may chain their animals in the house or yard in an attempt to keep them safe—but it actually does the opposite, she says. The chained animals are unable to flee if floodwaters rise or if predators come their way.
"It's the one thing that breaks our hearts."
This dog chained to a telephone pole in Victoria, Texas, lucked out: a reporter spotted the animal and brought it to safety, according to the Daily Mail.
Some of the photos coming out of Houston show animals in distress, while others show animals coping remarkably well.
A snapshot of Otis, a German Shepard mix, carrying a giant bag of kibble down a flooded street near Corpus Christi, went viral as a symbol of strength and spirit. He was later reunited with his family.
Whether this is an example of animal resilience or simply a hungry pooch taking control of the situation isn’t clear, Reid says, since very little research exists on resilience in companion animals. (Read "Your Dog Knows Exactly What You're Saying.")
“Dogs and cats are quite good at surviving on their own if they have to, but ultimately they’re still dependent on us,” Reid says.
If you see an animal in stress, be cautious, and gauge its response by calling to it. If you become separated from your pet during an emergency, contact authorities—and keep searching.
Once Harvey floodwaters start receding, the ASPCA and other animal-rescue groups plan to do just that—as well as work with local organizations to set up emergency shelters to help abandoned pets and reunite those that may have gotten separated from their owners.