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How Wildfires Affect Pets
Just like people, animals can be affected by wildfires in several ways.
Even if you aren’t in the direct path of a wildfire, unsafe or hazardous air quality is a potential health concern. If you can feel the effects of wildfire smoke, so can your pets. The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends taking these steps to protect against smoke inhalation:
- Monitor air quality – Find a reliable source to get information on air quality in your area, such as AirNow.
- Minimize exposure – Keep pets indoors as much as possible during periods of poor air quality. Close all windows and doors and use air conditioning or an air purifier, if available, to filter the air.
- Keep potty breaks short – Only let dogs outside briefly (and on a leash, if possible) to use the bathroom.
- Avoid strenuous activity – Refrain from exercising your pet in smoky conditions, as this can cause them to inhale more smoke.
- Monitor health – Be aware of the signs of smoke inhalation in pets. Symptoms can include coughing, difficulty breathing (open-mouth breathing, increased respiratory rate or effort), watery or irritated eyes, inflammation of the throat or mouth, nasal discharge, decreased thirst or appetite, fatigue, and disorientation. If you notice any of these symptoms, contact a veterinarian immediately.
- Plan for an emergency – Know where the closest 24-hour emergency animal hospital is and have a plan to get there if needed.
- Have an evacuation kit ready – This kit should include essentials like food, water, medications, a leash or carrier, veterinary records, and a photo of the pet in case they get lost.
Certain pets may be at higher risk of health concerns from smoke inhalation, including very young and old animals, those with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma or heart disease, and brachycephalic breeds. Birds are also especially susceptible.
Heat and Burns
Pets can sustain burns if they are in close proximity to a wildfire – from contact with fire, smoke, or smoldering debris. Burns can vary in severity from relatively minor to life-threatening, but are always an indication to seek veterinary care.
Burns are categorized into three types, based on the depth and severity of the injury:
- Superficial burn (first degree) – affects only the outer layer of skin (epidermis). These burns can cause redness, minor inflammation, and pain, but generally do not result in blistering or more serious complications.
- Partial thickness (second degree) – extends to the second layer of skin (dermis), causing blisters, swelling, severe pain, and risk of infection.
- Full thickness (third degree) – is the most severe, affecting the entire depth of the skin and often the underlying tissues as well. These burns can cause extensive damage and loss of pain sensation. Patients often present in shock, and may die from these burns.
Signs that your pet may have sustained burns include:
- Whining or signs of agitation
- Visible wounds or discolored (red, yellow, tan, black, grey) skin
- Refusal to move or difficulty walking
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty breathing
- Change in gum color
- Kidney failure
If your pet has been burned, immediately move them away from the source of the burn if it is safe to do so. Cool the area with cold running water or a cold compress. Do not use ice or ice water, as it can worsen the damage, and do not apply anything to the wound. Seek emergency veterinary care as soon as possible, even for minor burns, as the full extent of the burn may not be immediately visible.
Displacement and Getting Lost
During wildfires, pets can easily become lost. The chaos, noise, and change in environment can cause pets to panic and behave unpredictably – some may run off in fear, while others may hide in places that make them hard to find or rescue. The need for a rapid evacuation can lead to furry family members being left behind, especially if emergency plans do not adequately account for pet safety. In some cases, wildfires can destroy property, making it difficult for pets to return home or for owners to locate them after the event.
The risk of displacement or getting lost emphasizes the need for proactive measures such as:
- Identification – All pets should have current identification, including a collar with ID tags and a registered microchip. These measures can significantly increase the chances of a lost pet being reunited with their family.
- Evacuation plan – Pet parents should have a clear evacuation plan that includes their pets. This plan should specify how to safely evacuate pets and where to take them. All family members should be aware of this plan.
- Emergency kit – As discussed above, an emergency kit should be prepared and accessible.
- Safe shelter – In case of evacuation, identify pet-friendly shelters or accommodations ahead of time, as not all emergency shelters or hotels allow pets.
- Rescue alert sticker – Consider using a rescue alert sticker on a front window that tells rescuers how many and what type of pets are in the home.
Stress and Anxiety
Wildfires and the accompanying chaos can cause significant stress and anxiety for pets, especially cats, who are sensitive creatures of habit. Just like humans, animals respond to stressful situations with a fight-or-flight response, which can lead to altered behaviors. These behaviors can include hiding, escape attempts, excessive panting, drooling, pacing, restlessness, uncontrolled urination or defecation, and vocalizing (whining, barking, meowing).
Cats might become more reclusive and may attempt to hide in small, enclosed spaces. They may also stop eating or using their litter box. Dogs may become more clingy, seeking comfort from their owners, or they may become destructive. Prolonged stress can even lead to physical health issues.
Here are some ways to help your pets manage their stress and anxiety during a wildfire:
- Provide a safe space – Give your pet a quiet, secure place to retreat. For dogs, this might be a crate or a specific room. Cats often prefer high perches where they can observe their surroundings.
- Maintain routine -Try to stick to your pet’s routine as much as possible. Regular feeding times, sleeping schedules, and playtimes can provide comfort and a sense of normalcy.
- Comforting items – Familiar items like favorite toys, blankets, or beds can provide comfort and security.
- Stay calm – Pets are very tuned in to their owners’ emotional state. By remaining calm and reassuring, you can help reduce your pet’s anxiety.
- Consult a vet – If your pet’s anxiety is severe, consult a veterinarian. They might suggest various anxiety-reducing products, like wraps or pheromone diffusers, and in some cases, medications.
Lack of Access to Veterinary Care
During wildfire events, access to veterinary care can become a major concern. Fires can cause temporary or permanent closures of veterinary clinics, disrupt transportation routes, and lead to mandatory evacuations, all of which can limit access to professional pet care services. This is particularly problematic for pets who require regular veterinary care for chronic conditions, ongoing treatments, or emergency services.
Here’s how you can prepare and manage this challenge:
- Plan for medications and treatments – If your pet requires regular medication or treatments (like insulin shots for diabetes, or chemotherapy for cancer), talk to your vet about how to manage these needs in case of a disaster.
- Pet first aid – Consider taking a pet first aid course (or see our helpful guide). This can help prepare you to handle minor injuries and stabilize your pet in an emergency if you can’t get to a vet immediately..
- Telemedicine – You can consult with a vet over the phone or video chat about your pet’s symptoms and get advice on what to do.
- Identify emergency and alternative clinics – Know the location of the nearest 24-hour emergency animal hospitals and alternative clinics in case your vet is closed or unable to see you.
- Preventive measures – Keep your furry family members up to date on vaccines, preventatives, and annual healthcare.