NEW YORK - Kate and Warren Sherwood had to think quickly about what to take when Superstorm Sandy's surge flooded their barrier island and caused five houses on their block to burn to the ground. Luckily for their two black cats, Schwartz and Scooter, their pets were a priority.

But the narrow escape wasn't the end of the road for the felines. Their owners took refuge at a hotel that didn't accept cats.

"We sneaked them in and put a 'do not disturb' sign on the door - pretending we're on our honeymoon," said Warren Sherwood, 56, a systems analyst. "But after three days, they got restless and starting meowing."

The couple ended up having to take them to a nearby shelter set up in a gym.

Entwined with the human costs of the storm, which killed more than 100 people and caused billions of dollars in damage, is another significant toll - that of the cherished pets that died or were left behind as families fled for their lives. For many people, this added to feelings of displacement and trauma.

Some find it hard to understand why animals are a key concern in disasters engulfing human lives, but owners feel an attachment and responsibility to their pets, said Niki Dawson, director of disaster services for the Humane Society of the United States.

"There's such a strong bond between people and animals that people will put their lives at risk not to leave a pet behind," Dawson said. "So they stay, even when they're told to evacuate, and that puts first responders going back for them at risk."

Owners have recounted tales of a dog swimming through flooded streets and extra food left behind for a tarantula no one was willing to take in.

In New Jersey, the Humane Society deployed dozens of first responders using mobile units and boats to bring in about 60 displaced animals each day on the barrier islands hit by the storm.

Social media teams scour the Internet for reports of lost pets, helping reunite them with owners.

Rescuing animals is mandatory under federal law, which requires local and state governments to include plans for pets in emergency procedures. Federal Emergency Management Agency funds cover the welfare of animals in disaster zones.

New York City's human shelters are required to accept pets, and so are taxis and public transportation. More than 200 dogs, cats and other pets from a devastated area of Long Island are being sheltered in the gymnasium of a community college, set up by the North Shore Animal League America, the nation's largest no-kill rescue and adoption organization. Many, like the Sherwoods' Schwartz and Scooter, belong to owners in nearby shelters and hotels.

"We're ridiculously stressed out; we're freaked out," Warren Sherwood said. "But I'd do anything in the world for these people who are keeping our cats alive."

Also among the pets in the gym is Emma, a Manchester terrier who swam to safety through flooded streets while its owners carried their cats above the water, plus some clothes they grabbed at the last minute.

"We lost our house. It's submerged," said Mark Swing, who fled with his girlfriend as the tides rose. "All we got out was our four cats and the dog, except for a few changes of clothes."

The 8-year-old terrier was "a little tired, but fine," said Swing, 48, a contractor who was in a Red Cross shelter.

Cats and dogs weren't the only pets rescued from the storms.

"We're finding chinchillas, guinea pigs, rabbits, reptiles, birds," Dawson said.

Transport trailers distributed pet food and supplies including crates, leashes and litter, said the Humane Society's Schneider. Tons of food donated by manufacturers is being trucked in.

It will likely be months before any estimates are available as to how many pets might have died or were lost during the storms. And like their owners, many animals that survived won't go home anytime soon.

Dawson said she has seen people stuck in shelters, wearing donated clothing, with no idea when they'll go home. But when they turn to their dog or cat, "their faces light up."

And that, she says, is why animals matter amid a human disaster.