Forest Fires, Smoke, and Your Pet
By ArbutusWest, on Tuesday, July 7th, 2015
It is not surprising that everyone in Vancouver is talking about forest fires, but for us pet owners, there may be extra concern that BC’s fires may have a detrimental affect on the health of our pets. We aren’t used to smoke hanging thickly in the air, and many people are naturally concerned about the health implications of living downwind from them. It is intuitive that breathing in a lot of smoke is probably not good for you, but how much should you worry?
1. If your pet is healthy, then you have nothing to worry about.
2. If your pet has a respiratory or cardiovascular condition, then you probably still have nothing to worry about, but keep an eye for signs of the condition getting worse.
3. Take it easy and avoid strenuous exercise.
Pretty basic, right? So now let’s get into the “why.” Smoke is a combination of water vapor, carbon, and microscopic particulate matter, which is a fancy way of saying “stuff that didn’t burn all the way.” Our bodies have mechanisms in place for filtering particles from the air. These include our nasal passages, mucus lining, tiny little hairs in our airways called cilia, and immune cells in our lungs that move around and break-down and collect foreign material to make it easier for your body to clear it. Our eyes produce tear film to “clean the windshield” so to speak, and the conjunctiva (the inside of the eyelids) have an excellent immune mechanism used to deal with matter that gets in your eyes all the time.
Where we encounter problems is when these mechanisms are compromised due to illness, or when they get overwhelmed. It takes a lot to overwhelm a healthy body, so with the current conditions we only really have to worry about cats and dogs who have health problems that may be aggravated or triggered by the particles in the air. These fall into two main categories: respiratory and cardiovascular.
Of the respiratory conditions, those affecting the lungs, feline asthma is the one that most readily comes to mind. Smoke is known for triggering asthma attacks, so if your cat has a history of this condition, you should keep an eye on the signs. If your cat is on medication, you may want to increase the dose slightly while the smoky conditions last (just call your veterinarian and ask for a new dose). If they are not on medication, but you think they may be struggling a bit (eg: coughing/retching, throwing up more hairballs, less active, open mouth breathing) then get them to your vet for an evaluation right away. This will prevent a crisis and keep your cat feeling great! Needless to say that dogs and cats with pneumonia or bronchitis also need to be monitored closely.
Dogs and cats with cardiovascular conditions (eg: heart murmurs, hypertension, congestive heart failure), are also at an increased risk of complications and should be watched closely. Avoid stressing them out, as this will put additional load on the cardiovascular system! Take shorter walks with your dog, either early in the morning or late in the evening (heat is another stressor for their system), and avoid playing with your cat while it’s hot and smoky. Let them do what they do best: relax!
Another condition that is less common but may be exacerbated by the smoke is Dry-Eye. The technical term for dry eye is keratoconjunctivitis sicca (or KCS), but any patient receiving eye medications should be on high alert. This includes cats and dogs being treated for eye ulcers, or conjunctivitis. Because the smoke is an irritant increased frequency of medication (up to every two (2) hours) may prove useful, and some delay in healing may be expected.
If you are really concerned about the air quality, a HEPA air filter can be bought at most hardware stores. Typically the only the higher end air purifiers have a HEPA filter, but they are not terribly expensive and are easy to find. HEPA filters are effective at filtering smoke and dust particles and can appreciably improve air quality in your home. They also make nice fans for the heat.
Other than a slightly increased risk of complications from existing health conditions, the smoke from BC’s forest fires is unlikely to have long-term health repercussions for your pet. If you have a pet with a lung or heart condition, avoid strenuous exercise until the air clears up, watch for coughs, increased breathing effort, and other signs of respiratory distress, and don’t wait too long before seeking medical advice if you see signs that are of concern. Follow these guidelines, and you should not have too much trouble with the forest fire season in Vancouver.