Humans aren’t the only ones breathing in deadly, dirty air this week.
Pets — animals who often have indoor sanctuary — may still have to venture outside when wildfire smoke comes to town. Dogs need their outdoor bathroom breaks, and don’t have the protection of masks, like we do. And if living in poorly sealed buildings without air filters, other pets like cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and birds, too, can suffer from unhealthy air.
Smoke from more than 150 forest fires blazing hundreds of miles away in Quebec, Canada, billowed to parts of the US earlier this week, leading to extremely high levels of air pollution. New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC all saw air pollution levels reach the “hazardous” level on the Air Quality Index.
While pet parents and animals in the US are a safe distance from the flames themselves, the threat of air pollution cannot be underestimated. In humans, air pollution can cause dizziness, coughing, headaches, and in more severe cases and vulnerable groups, heart and lung problems. Air pollution is also a silent killer: It’s responsible for nearly 250,000 premature deaths in the US and 6.7 million premature deaths globally each year.
Poor air quality can also harm your pet. As such, air quality alerts apply to people as well as their pets. If the air isn’t safe for you, it’s not safe for them.
“A lot of people just don’t realize that animals can experience things almost exactly in the same ways that we do,” said Lisa Lippman, a veterinarian and director of virtual medicine at Bond Vet. “They have the same organ systems that we do, and they’re really, really susceptible, especially [to air pollution] if they’re in the at-risk categories.”
Importantly, fretting about air quality and what to do is just the beginning of what experts believe, due to climate change, will be a more fire-filled future. As such, it’s important that pet parents learn how to protect themselves and their furry/scaly/feathered friends.
How to keep your pets safe from wildfire smoke
Like humans, the first line of protection for pets is staying indoors whenever possible. Even indoors, birds are particularly at risk. Keeping them in a room with sealed windows and an air purifier can help.
“You get birds in smoke and they’re going to crumple,” said Debra Zoran, a veterinarian and professor in small animal clinical sciences in the School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University. But “with good filtration and working air conditioners and all those sorts of things, they’re probably going to be okay [indoors].”
As Vox’s Keren Landman reports, you’ll want to switch from ventilation mode to recirculation mode on your HVAC units. If you have a window AC unit, make sure those flimsy side panels are well sealed. You’ll also want to avoid running exhaust fans like the ones in your bathroom or kitchen.
For dogs that require the occasional quick trip outdoors, keep it brief and mission-oriented.
That can be difficult if your pup doesn’t quite understand why you’re in such a hurry. If they’re reluctant, potty pads might also be a good resource to stock up on. Smoke is usually less intense really early in the morning and late at night, so think about doing your outside walks during those times.
Back inside, you can wipe down their fur (especially around the eyes and mouth) to help prevent irritation from airborne particles. Puppies and older dogs, along with those with smushed faces — like pugs, Boston terriers, and bulldogs — are at greater risk.
“Animals with flat faces, like pugs and Persian cats, are sensitive to poor air quality since they cannot pant as effectively,” Lori Bierbrier, a senior medical director for the ASPCA Community Medicine team, told Vox in a written statement. “These pets, along with the elderly, the overweight, and those with heart or lung diseases, should be kept cool in air-conditioned rooms as much as possible.”
Bierbrier recognizes that keeping your pet indoors most of the day, especially if they’re used to outdoor play sessions or walks, can be challenging. Boredom is already a neglected animal welfare issue, even without added confinement.
“Ramping down that exercise could leave your pet with pent-up energy,” she said. “Interactive toys or healthy chews can help keep your dog active and engaged while limiting outside time.” Specifically for dogs, Bierbrier recommends stuffing toys with the animal’s favorite food and then freezing it. These toys keep pets busy and soothe them, she said.
One thing you should not do, Zoran said, is put a mask on your dog when you take them outside. Even if you manage to get a mask on tight enough to prevent particulates from getting around the edges, “a mask that tight would cause most dogs to lose their minds. If it’s tight enough to keep particulates from getting around it, they’re not going to go for it because they can’t pant,” she said.
Cats and dogs alike have strong respiratory systems, but hydration is key. “Their nasal passages and respiratory trees are amazingly resilient to removing those particulates, as long as they’re well hydrated. If the airways get dehydrated, they can’t do their jobs as well,” said Zoran.
How to tell if your pets are having a bad reaction to wildfire smoke or poor air quality
Since animals can’t exactly say, “Hey, I’m having a tough time breathing!” directly to humans, it’s sometimes hard to tell when your pet isn’t feeling well, or if symptoms are a sign of something more serious as opposed to general irritation.
The American Veterinary Medical Association instructs pet owners to consult their vet if their animal is experiencing fatigue, eye irritation, coughing, gagging, or labored breathing after exposure to smoke-caused air pollution. If cats are breathing through their mouths, they’re having trouble breathing. “That’s go-to-the-vet land,” said Zoran.
“With dogs, you can’t use that same criteria, because they breathe through their mouths all the time,” Zoran continued. “If they’re coughing, and are obsessively open-mouth breathing, or are unable to lay down and rest, that probably means they’re uncomfortable and don’t have the ability to relax, and that is telling you that something is not going well.”
There are ways for owners to relieve their discomfort at home. For dogs and cats that show signs of eye irritation (which include redness, tearing, and pawing at their face), squeezing a cotton ball with lukewarm water over their eyes to flush them out can relieve discomfort, Jerry Klein, the chief veterinary officer at the American Kennel Club, told the New York Times.
It’s also important to recognize when the best option for you and your pet is to leave the area. If you and your pets are in immediate danger due to a wildfire or any other type of natural disaster, having a confirmed, pet-friendly location to evacuate to is vital.
Your animal’s evacuation kit should contain three to seven days of food, any medicine your pet needs, medical records, and a pet carrier (a full list of what to include can be found on the American Veterinary Medical Association’s website).
In any case, pet parents should be monitoring these disasters closely, paying attention to both the air quality — which they can do via AirNow — and their pet’s behavior.
“Don’t hesitate to reach out to the vet if you have any questions,” said Lippman, who shared advice on how to deal with the current air pollution on her Instagram. “We would so rather you be safe than sorry.”