No one knows how many dogs and cats took off for parts unknown when last Thursday's earthquake hit. Nor how many were still missing on Tuesday--five days and innumerable aftershocks later.
Joan Mead, 40, like many another pet owner, spent two days scouring her Silver Lake-area neighborhood for her 2-year-old tabby cat, Romeo, who bolted through a bedroom screen and dropped one story to the pavement when the initial shake came.
She chased him down the street, but he had at least a one-block head start and disappeared.
Mead, who has been ill recently and is preparing for a hospital stay, said that during her search she looked at her neighborhood "from a cat's point of view"--crawling under houses, peering into bushes and garages and showing pictures of the wayward feline to neighbors.
Late Friday night, she checked outside every 15 minutes.
Cat in the Driveway
"I saw a cat slinking up the driveway," she said. "He usually has a jaunty step and I thought it wasn't him. And besides, he wasn't white, he was dark. But he kept coming and I ran out in my nightgown yelling, 'Is that you Romeo, is that you?' And it was. He was greasy and dirty; wasn't sure he wanted to be back where that awful noise and shaking had been. He was very jumpy and didn't want me to leave his side."
When the aftershock came early Sunday morning, Mead was prepared. The windows were shut so Romeo had no escape route. And she had a cat carrier at her bedside in case she had to leave the house with her pet.
Other pet owners, however, were still looking on Tuesday.
Area animal shelters report that they have received an unusually high number of missing-animal reports and have picked up almost double the usual number of animals running loose.
Likewise, area veterinarians report that while they have not seen many animals physically injured by the temblors, numerous pets have suffered stress-related ailments, such as loss of appetite, upset stomachs and diarrhea.
The activity at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' facility in Southgate, which services the hard-hit Whittier area, is typical of the scene at most shelters. Officers stationed there picked up nine dogs on the day of the main earthquake. A similar number were found Friday, and by Saturday, the number decreased to five, which would be a normal day. But on Sunday, after the large aftershock, 12 dogs were found running loose.
"They just get scared, and when they do they can jump 12-foot fences if they want," said Susan Franklin, SPCA assistant supervisor.
"Most (cases) seem to be having happy endings," she added. "Owners have been diligent about seeking out their pets immediately, so we've had more luck reuniting them."
Franklin said shelters have had far fewer missing-cat reports, because "cats are more street-wise than dogs. They're used to wandering. They've marked their home territory and usually can find it again."
Dr. Jorge Cuellar, a Woodland Hills veterinarian, said that last Wednesday, the day before the big temblor hit, he saw an unusually high number of pets with stomach upsets.
"Looking back on it, I wonder if they sensed it was coming. But I can't prove it," he said.
Even More Later
After the earthquake, even more animals were brought in with similar symptoms, Cuellar said. He took lab tests and concluded that it was their nerves.
"It's a cycle," he said. "First they are upset about the earthquake. Then that fear sometimes makes them sick. Then they get even more fearful because they are sick."
The veterinarian noted that since the earthquake, one of his cats has been vomiting and hiding. The other two have been following his wife around the house constantly.
"The best thing to do is give them plenty of reassurance. Keep them inside, and feed them multiple small meals or bland diets, or even withhold food for a short period, until they calm down," he said.
Need ID Tags
Animal experts also emphasized that all pets who can wear them should have collars and identification tags. When preparing earthquake emergency kits, owners should include items for pets, such as food and water. If a pet should disappear, they can place ads in papers, put posters up and check daily at shelters and hospitals.
"Don't ever give up hope," Mead said after Romeo was back in tow. "They might show up weeks later."
An animal behaviorist for the Los Angeles Zoo, Mead noted that she has done volunteer work finding homes for animals. Often, if someone finds and keeps a pet, they "sometimes find later that they don't want them, or their conscience bothers them, so they take them to the shelter."
Those who have found others' pets this last week have had problems of a different sort.
Shirley Kessler, a secretary at USC, notes that Prof. Mary Ann von Glinow found a black and tan Doberman pinscher, a young female, hiding in a 5-foot-deep window well at the School of Business soon after Thursday's temblor.