Pet Safety Amid Western U.S. Wildfires


Historic wildfires have ravaged California in recent weeks, leaving an astonishing 3.3 million acres burned in less than a month. Across California, it is estimated that 29 major wildfires are still burning, and more than 16,750 firefighters are struggling to fight them back. Washington and Oregon are also seeing widespread destruction from the fires—which have been amplified due to dry, windy weather conditions.

As wildfires continue to spread across western U.S. states, impacting air quality and causing wildlife to flee to safety, veterinarians at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital are warning people of potential dangers for pets. Jennifer Sergeeff, DVM, DACVIM, internist and medical director at BluePearl in Daly City, Ca., just a mile outside of San Francisco City limits, says while the fires are about 30 miles away from her practice, she and her team are in the smoke zone of these fires (from all directions) and Daly City has been under unhealthy air quality alerts for nearly two weeks.

“We are providing medical advice to owners regarding heat and air quality as it relates to their pet’s health,” remarked Dr. Sergeeff. “The advice we are giving to owners is aimed mostly towards those with pets suffering from underlying respiratory conditions or allergies. We are also advising owners to avoid exposing pets to excessive heat—since high temperatures have been concurrent with fires—at peak times daily.”

Here are a few tips to help keep pets safe during wildfires:

Limit exposure to smoke. The wildfires are expected to continue to spew out large plumes of smoke in the coming days. This smoke can harm your pet in multiple ways, including causing irritation to eyes and respiratory system, as well as worsening chronic heart and lung diseases. Whether your pet is healthy or has a heart or lung condition like asthma or bronchitis, it is important to limit their exposure to smoke. If a wildfire occurs in your area, pay close attention to local air quality reports and the US Air Quality Index, and watch for official health warnings about smoke. Take extra safety measures such as avoiding spending time outdoors. If your pet has lung or cardiovascular disease, follow your veterinarian’s advice regarding your pet’s disease management plan.

Watch for signs of smoke inhalation:

  • Agitation
  • Uncoordinated gait
  • Seizures
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Increased breathing rate
  • Coughing
  • Facial swelling
  • Squinting of eyes
  • Skin burns
  • Slow reaction time
Increased breathing rate can be a sign of smoke inhalation. Image credit stevengosch, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Even if your pet seems to be doing fine after smoke exposure, they should be seen by a veterinarian. During the first 24 hours following smoke exposure, breathing difficulty may gradually get worse. The treatment following smoke inhalation is oxygen therapy; however, some animals may require intubation—a procedure in which a tube is placed in the mouth and down the trachea to keep the airway open.

Watch out for heat exhaustion. BluePearl veterinarians commonly see dogs come in with heat exhaustion, or pet heatstroke. Heatstroke occurs when a pet’s body absorbs more heat than it can dissipate, either through exercise or exposure. If possible, walk your dog in the morning or evening to avoid the hottest hours of the day, and keep them inside on hot days. Even if your yard has shady areas, remember, temperatures can shift throughout the day. Always have water available and keep pets well groomed. If the coat is matted and tangled the fur may trap heat in. If you do take them on a walk, keep walks at a slow pace, and if your pet seems tired, rest or stop the activity. If you suspect your dog is experiencing heatstroke, soak their body with wet towels and put them in front of a fan, then immediately bring to them to a veterinarian hospital.

Keep a look out for displaced wildlife. Some Northern California areas are known to be mountain lion and bobcat territory. As the fires spread, these big cats and other wildlife are being displaced. Predatory animals are pushed down hills, away from fires, but often closer to residential areas. Due to this, BluePearl veterinarians are advising owners to keep dogs and cats indoors around dawn and dusk, and to help local wildlife by leaving water out for them.

Pets that have been exposed to smoke and/or fire need immediate medical attention from a veterinarian. If clinical symptoms of heatstroke or smoke inhalation develop and/or worsen, promptly contact your veterinarian for advice on next steps or bring your pet into a veterinary hospital for assessment. This prompt care can mean the difference between life and death for your pet.

Featured image: a view of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge surrounded by wildfire smoke. Image credit Christopher Michel, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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BluePearl is a national network of specialty and emergency pet hospitals. Click to see author's profile.

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