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How to keep your pet safe from wildfires: symptoms analysis and prevention

· Vet tips

If you’re staying in an area that is at risk of wildfires, then I imagine you’ve asked the questions ‘Is wildfire smoke harmful to my pets?’ and ‘How do I keep my pet safe if there is a wildfire?’. If that is the case, then read on!

Sadly, wildfires are increasingly common. In some areas, climate change is leading to a risky combination of higher temperatures with reduced rainfall. Wildfires can have devastating effects on communities, ecosystems and wildlife. So, how about your pets? How are animals affected by wildfires? Well, chances are that if you are feeling any effects of smoke then your pets are too! It is always best to be prepared, so remember to include your pets in your emergency planning.

Pet sickness caused by wildfires: what symptoms should I watch for?

The obvious danger of fire is burns. However, even a distant bush fire can cause a lot of smoke, which can travel a long way with the wind. Wildfire smoke can harm your pet in multiple ways. Just as in people, most of the damage smoke causes is to the airways and the eyes. Smoke contains carbon monoxide, amongst other things, which interferes with the body’s ability to deliver oxygen. It also contains particles which irritate the lining of the respiratory tract and trigger excessive inflammation. Depending on how close you are to the fire, smoke can also cause thermal damage (burns) within the respiratory tract. If your pet is elderly or very young; has preexisting heart or lung disease; is a brachycephalic breed or a bird; then they are at greater risk.

Symptoms to look out for include:
- Coughing
- Gagging
- Difficulty breathing: this includes open mouth breathing (which is especially significant in cats), noisy breathing, increased breathing rate, gasping
- Red and / or watery eyes
- Discharge from the nose
- Lethargy or weakness
- Confusion, stumbling or wobbly gait
- Decreased thirst / appetite.


If you notice any of these symptoms, or anything else that concerns you, contact your veterinary clinic straight away.
 

My pet is sick due to a wildfire, what will the treatment be?

Treatment will depend on the severity of damage that your pet has sustained. Most of the damage caused comes to light in 24-72 hours, so your pet is likely to be in the veterinary hospital for this period of time. Your veterinarian will examine your pet, looking for external burns, conduct an eye exam and listen to their chest. They will also want to measure the amount of oxygen in your pet’s blood. To do this they will use a machine called a pulse oximeter, which gently attaches to your pet’s ear. They may also run bloods, take a chest x-ray and perform an E.C.G. (electrocardiogram), in order to assess the extent of the damage.

 

Treatment will usually include oxygen therapy. Your pet will either be placed in an oxygen cage or be given oxygen via a mask. Burns and smoke damage are sadly painful; people often describe a burning sensation in their lungs- your veterinarian will administer pain relief for as long as necessary. Your pet may also need to go on a drip. This is for a few reasons: to treat shock, to replace excess water loss through burns and to compensate for the fact that your pet is drinking less than usual.

 

If your pet has inflammation in their airways, your veterinarian may give bronchodilators. These are medicines to open up the airways and to help your pet breathe more easily. The good news is that for most animals the prognosis is good and they make a good recovery. Unfortunately, animals with very widespread burns; neurological signs or who deteriorate during treatment carry a more guarded prognosis.

How do I keep my pet safe in a wildfire?

Preparation is key! Make sure your pet is microchipped and that your details are up to date and accurate on the central database, in case they get lost. A good old fashioned collar and tag work well too, but must be in addition to the microchip. Ensure your pets are up to date with their vaccinations; since they may be refused entry to a shelter if they are not.

Before wildfire season (which tends to be summer and fall when the weather is hot, drought is more likely and there are lots of dry leaves and branches on the ground) be sure to check your smoke alarms are working. Ensure you have good quality filters for your air conditioning system, as these can capture some smoke particles. If you don’t have air conditioning and live in an at-risk area, consider installing one or purchasing a unit.

Be prepared for the possibility of evacuation. Not all emergency shelters will accept pets, so make sure you do your research in advance and plan where you will go. If you have a cat(s) then it is useful to get them used to their pet carrier in advance. If it only comes out for vet visits or emergencies, then your cat will likely bolt at the site of it! Allow your cat to have time in the carrier at their leisure, with the door open, and with lots of treats.

The US Environmental Protection Agency advises having an evacuation kit prepared in advance and stored in an easily accessible place. This is a kit for your pet, which would be in addition to your own prepacked supplies.

Things to include in the kit:
- Enough food, water and medicine to last around a week. Remember to rotate these regularly so they don’t go out of date!
- Important documents: proof of ownership, microchip registration details, vaccination and medical records.
- A recent photo of your pet (in case you become separated)
- First aid supplies and contact details for your veterinary clinic
- Travel supplies: collar, leash, pet transporter, travel food and water bowls
- Sanitation supplies: poo bags, travel litter tray, dish soap etc.
- You may also wish to include a few comfort items such as a favorite blanket or toy.

In the event of a wildfire in your region, you may be advised to stay indoors. If this is the case, then keep your animals indoors as much as possible too. If you can smell or feel any effects from smoke, then your pet can too! Be sure to keep the air inside your home as clean as possible. In addition to keeping windows and doors shut and using an air conditioning unit; refrain from burning candles, smoking cigarettes and burning wood stoves. Any outdoor animals should be brought inside wherever possible, into a well ventilated indoor space (a garage or utility room for example). Allow dogs outdoor access for toilet breaks only. There are lots of games you can play with your pet indoors to keep them (and you) entertained!
    
During the period which you are advised to stay indoors, using a veterinary telehealth service like KeepPet can be really helpful. This gives you access to a veterinarian from the comfort of your home. If you aren’t sure whether to make that visit to your veterinarian, then they can also provide a triage service. They can advise whether your animal needs to be seen in person at a veterinary clinic - and whether the risks of smoke exposure are worth the benefits. Again, planning is key, so have the details of a telehealth service you trust to hand. Of course in the event of an emergency, please telephone your veterinary clinic directly.

Wildfires are becoming more common and can have widespread damaging effects. If you live in, or are visiting, an area at risk of bush fires then be prepared in advance. The less you have to plan whilst already in a stressful situation the better, for you and your pet!
 

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