By Christina Chan
Wildfires in the United States are on the rise. As of Nov. 30, the fires have burned nearly 9.2 million acres of land in 2017—almost 45 percent more than the 10-year average, according to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center.
While these wildfires can cause extensive damage to property and wildlife habitats, the smoke can also cause trauma to pets.
“Carbon monoxide poisoning is generally the first thing everyone associates with smoke inhalation and it’s believed to be the leading cause of death in pets exposed to fire and smoke,” says Dr. Lynn Rolland Hovda, director of veterinary services at Pet Poison Helpline of Bloomington, Minnesota.
But there are other dangers that pet parents should watch for that range from minor injuries to serious medical emergencies, so it’s important to be prepared and learn what to look for after pets are exposed to fire and smoke.
Signs of Smoke Inhalation in Pets
Early outward signs that can be associated with smoke inhalation in pets include:
- Your pet is covered in soot.
- Your pet smells like smoke.
- Your pet is having difficulty breathing, is coughing, or is breathing rapidly.
- Your pet’s gums and other mucous membranes turn a bright, cherry red color.
- Singed fur
- Visible burns
- Eye abnormalities like redness, squinting, or an elevated third eyelid
Smoke-Inhalation Dangers for Pets
Smoke inhalation-related illnesses and injuries are treatable if they are mild to moderate, according to Dr. Justine Johnson of Ocean State Veterinary Specialists in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. As with other fire-related injuries, time is of the essence. Here are five dangers of smoke inhalation to be aware of in pets:
Thermal Injury: Air travels through your pet’s nose and mouth, into the windpipe, through the small airways, as it makes its way into the lungs. With smoke inhalation, a pet’s airways can become irritated and injured by ash, chemicals, and heat. “Smoke and high heat can damage the airways,” says Johnson. “Damaged airway linings increase the risk of pneumonia.”
Smoke inhalation can cause thermal injuries to a pet’s airways without apparent external signs, Hovda says. “It takes 48 to 72 hours for ulcers and erosions to occur, so pets should be closely monitored for several days.”
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: The concentration of carbon monoxide in smoky air can be high, resulting in carbon monoxide poisoning in pets.
Carbon monoxide binds more strongly to hemoglobin than oxygen does, preventing the hemoglobin from properly doing its job of carrying oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues. “When [carbon monoxide poisoning] is severe or lasts for hours, brain damage or death can occur due to lack of oxygen,” says Johnson.
The most common signs of carbon monoxide poisoning in pets are an increased respiratory rate and abnormal sounds heard via stethoscope in the lungs during breathing, Hovda says. Some pets will also develop cherry red mucous membranes and neurologic abnormalities.
Hydrogen Cyanide Poisoning: In house fires, common household materials such as plastics, laminates, paint, varnishes, and other building materials release toxic gases that may result in hydrogen cyanide poisoning, according to Dr. Jon Geller of Fort Collins Veterinary Emergency and Rehabilitation Hospital in Colorado.
Signs of hydrogen cyanide poisoning are similar to those present during oxygen deprivation and may include rapid breathing, difficulty breathing, lethargy, drowsiness, or even unusual excited behavior, Hovda says. Although hydrogen cyanide poisoning in pets does not happen often as a result of smoke inhalation, Hovda says it shouldn’t be discounted as a potential danger.
“We are just now learning that cyanide was a bigger problem than we originally thought and should be considered whenever a pet shows severe signs associated with smoke inhalation,” she says. Medications are available that can help pets eliminate hydrogen cyanide from the body.
Pneumonia: Pneumonia is a lung infection your pet may get as a result of delayed complications from smoke inhalation. “When the airways are damaged, they can’t protect the lungs from inhaling bacteria,” Johnson explains. “How well your pet recovers depends on the extent of the lung infection.” Treatment includes antibiotics and, if needed, supportive therapies like oxygen supplementation and intravenous fluids.
Neurologic Damage: Left untreated, smoke inhalation could show up as a neurological disorder later on, according to Geller. Your pet may have difficulty walking, exhibit changes in behavior, and have seizures.
Johnson explains that the effects can be temporary or lasting, depending on the extent of damage and the time your pet has been left untreated. “Oxygen deprivation or direct chemical effects on the brain are what can cause neurologic damage,” Johnson says.
Treating Smoke Inhalation in Pets
The best action to take if you believe your pet has inhaled smoke is to get your dog or cat to your veterinarian as soon as possible. Smoke inhalation is typically treated with oxygen therapy, and the results can be good if the animal is brought in quickly. “The earlier the oxygen therapy, the better the prognosis,” says Johnson.
Complications resulting from smoke inhalation may not be immediately apparent, so pet owners should monitor pets closely. “Your pet may look OK at first, but some of the dangers occurring in their airways are progressive,” says Johnson. Issues can show up quickly, but may also manifest hours or days after exposure.
Geller says that an especially effective treatment for smoke inhalation in pets is the use of a hyperbaric chamber. It’s essentially an enclosed space that raises air pressure and delivers a much increased level of oxygen into the bloodstream. “Your pet sits in the chamber for about an hour-and-a-half and typically receives two treatments,” says Geller.
Tips to Help Your Pet Avoid Smoke Inhalation
There are preventative measures you can take if a wildfire breaks out near your home. John Bagala, vice president of the Marin Professional Firefighters in California, advises pet owners take the following precautions:
- Keep pets indoors if there is smoke in the air.
- Forgo using heating or air conditioning in the event of smoke in the environment if you can, as they tend to draw in air from the outside.
- If you must leave an area affected by a wildfire, look to move yourself and your pets to an area of higher elevation since smoke tends to settle in valleys.
- Consider evacuating to a coastal area, as air quality is generally better in these geographic locations.
And here are a few steps Hovda suggests pet owners take if your pet might be affected by smoke inhalation:
- Move your pet away from the worst of the fire and smoke into an area with fresh air.
- Keep them warm and dry.
- Seek out EMTs and ambulances, which typically carry oxygen that can be administered to your pet.
- Transport your pet as soon as possible to an emergency clinic.
Although smoke inhalation has the potential to be life threatening or cause serious damage, with timely veterinary treatment, many pets come through in good health.
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