Fire Safety Tips For Pets

It’s summertime and the majority of the U.S. feels the searing effects of hot weather including the threat of fire.

Many parts of the country, especially the Southwest  and California, are also suffering from a major drought. Combine extreme heat with lack of sufficient moisture to support plant growth and you’ve got major risk for fire danger potentially harmful to property, people, and pets.

Having lived in Los Angeles since 2006, I’ve witnessed the impact fire damage has on homes and lives.  Although fire has never forced Cardiff and I to flee, noticeable changes in the air quality could seen, smelled, and felt in West Hollywood from wildfires in adjacent communities.

Our air takes on yellow hue and charred aroma from the burning of natural and man-made materials.  Inhalation and contact with airborne irritants can adversely affect the health animals and people.  Coarse and fine particulate matter can trigger an inflammatory response in the eyes and respiratory tract.  Additionally, chemicals derived from burning fuels, metal, plastics, and even plant material (alkaloids) can be mildly to severe toxic when inhaled.

If the air quality resulting from wildfires is affecting you, it will also be negatively impacting your pet.  The signs your canine, feline, or other animal companion will show after exposure to smoke or fire depends on the degree of exposure and damage incurred.

Clinical Signs of Exposure to Smoke or Fire

Ocular (eyes)

  • Bletharospasm- Squinting or winking, seen when a pet forcibly closes one or both eyes
  • Pruritis- Pawing at the eyes or rubbing the face on environmental surfaces, which can exacerbate eye inflammation or lead to corneal ulceration.
  • Conjunctivitis- Inflammation of the conjunctiva (tissue lining the inner eyelid)
  • Scleritis- Swelling of the blood vessels of the sclera (white of the eye) causes a “bloodshot” appearance
  • Ocular discharge- Clear, white, green, or even bloody discharge commonly affecting both eyes

Respiratory (nose, trachea, lungs)

  • Cough- Dry or moist and productive (material being expelled) or non-productive cough
  • Nasal Discharge- Like the eyes, nasal discharge may be clear, white, green, or even bloody
  • Sneezing- The body attempts to expel air to clear the nasal passages to remove inhaled irritants
  • Wheezing- Airway inflammation leads to a whistle-like sound when air inefficiently moves through the nose, trachea (windpipe), or lungs
  • Increased respiratory rate- The chest wall moves in and out faster than normal (dog=10-30 and cat=20-30 breaths/minute, respectively)
  • Increased respiratory effort- Visible use of the abdominal wall muscles to facilitate breathing
  • Orthopnea- Straightening of the neck to reduce the angled shape of the trachea and provide a more linear passage for air to reach the lungs

Others

  • Besides the eyes and respiratory tract, thermal burns can affect the skin, coat, mouth, and other tissues.  You may smell burned hair or see scorched skin.  Ptyalism (salivating) or problems chewing and swallowing can occur when the mouth is burned.  When severe enough, smoke inhalation or burned tissues can cause difficulty walking, collapse, respiratory failure, and death.

Strategies to Prevent Pet Fire Exposure

Know your pet’s location

When scrambling to flee from a fire, it’s crucial to be aware of your pet’s location.  Cats and small dogs may hide in a closet, under a bed, or elsewhere to escape potential harm caused by smoke, heat, and toxins released by burning debris.  The presence of medium and large-sized dogs is usually more obvious, but they may instinctually flee from a dangerous scene unbeknownst to their concerned owner.

Be consistently aware of your pets’ location in your house or yard.  Know their day-to-day habits, including preferential locations to nap, nest, or hide to facilitate their discovery during emergencies.

Alert emergency personnel of your pet’s presence in your home

To alert emergency service personnel of a pet’s presence in your home, post a notification in a clearly viewed window.  The American Society for Protection and Care of Animals (ASPCA) offers window decal alerts in their free Pet Safety Pack.

Properly identify your pet

Should your pet go missing, a safe return is more likely to occur when up to date identification is visible.  Fit your pet with a cervical (neck) collar displaying a tag with at least your pet’s name and your most accessible phone number or email.  Embroidered collars featuring the same information as the tag are helpful, as tags can fall off or wear down to the point where the details can’t be seen.

Microchip implantation also increases the likelihood you will be reunited with a lost pet.  Always keep your personal information up to date with the microchip manufacturer.   Since microchip identification requires a scanner and collars and tags can go missing, using multiple means of identifying your pet is best.

Immediately seek veterinary care

If your pet is exposed to smoke, fire, or other noxious substance, immediately seek care from your veterinarian or emergency veterinary facility.  Tissue damage from heat or smoke may not be readily apparent to the untrained eyes of most pet owners.  Determining the degree to which the eyes, lungs, skin, and other organs are affected may require diagnostics (x-rays, blood tests, etc.) to facilitate the best treatment for your pet.

Reduce the likelihood that your pet will be incur wildfire-related health problems by limiting outdoor activities, keeping windows shut, and using air conditioning.  Additionally, reference California’s Current Fire Information and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention-Wildfires for safety guidelines.

Meet the Author: Patrick Mahaney

Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).

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