How Bad is Wildfire Smoke for My Pet?

Published: 9/1/2021

Wildfires are becoming deadlier and spreading farther every year. The Bootleg Fire in Oregon, which was recently declared fully contained, burned 400,000+ acres, producing toxic fumes that spread as far as North Carolina.

Inhaling wildfire smoke obviously harms our pets, but just how badly? According to Dr. Jamie Craven, a veterinarian based in Chattanooga, pets experience the same effects as humans when exposed to wildfire smoke. Keep reading to learn what wildfire smoke consists of, which pets are especially vulnerable to it, and how you can keep your fur-babies safe.

How bad is wildfire smoke for my pets?

Every wildfire is different. The contents of the smoke vary depending on an array of factors, like the temperature of the fire and the materials burned.

Roughly 80% of wildfire smoke is comprised of fine particulate matter. (A human hair is 30+ times larger than the biggest fine particles.) Fine particles are especially dangerous because they can infiltrate the lungs, pass into the bloodstream, and settle deep within the body. In humans, this triggers an immune response, which releases the same cells that fend off viruses.

Unfortunately, that immune response doesn't break down those particles, which increases the risk of chronic inflammation. To make matters worse, prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke keeps the ineffective immune response active for longer, which can damage the major organs.

Inflamed sinuses and nasal passages can produce excess mucus. Dogs often swallow this mucus, which can lead to vomiting. Other symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure include:

Pets that are especially vulnerable to wildfire smoke

What's in wildfire smoke?

Carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and polycyclic aromatic compounds are just a few toxins that comprise wildfire smoke. A study by the California Air Resources Board found that wildfires can also increase lead, zinc, and iron levels in the air by up to 50 times. Below, we've detailed how these toxins affect your pets' health.

Carbon monoxide

Hemoglobin is a molecule in the blood that transports oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. Conversely, hemoglobin prefers to bind with carbon monoxide over oxygen. So when your pet breathes in wildfire smoke that contains high levels of carbon monoxide, hemoglobin picks it up instead of the oxygen and carries it throughout the body. This is one reason why carbon monoxide poisoning is so dangerous.

Nitrogen dioxide

Nitrogen dioxide (and other nitrogen oxides) produce nitrate particles, which contribute to the hazy appearance of wildfire smoke. Nitrogen dioxide can suppress your pet's immune response, making them more susceptible to bacterial infections by reducing the amount of specialized white blood cells circulating throughout the body.

Polycyclic aromatic compounds

"Polycyclic aromatic compound" (PAC) is an umbrella term for a variety of environmental contaminants. PACs occur naturally in coal and fossil fuels. When burned, they can linger in the air for a long time and are difficult to break down. While less is known about PACs' effects on the body than other toxins, research shows some PACs can cause cancer and damage the reproductive organs and immune system.

How to protect your pet from wildfire smoke

Below, we've covered 3 tips for protecting your pet from wildfire smoke inhalation. For more detailed guidance, check out our article on keeping your dog safe from wildfire smoke and poor air quality.

Invest in an N-95 mask for your dog.

The surgical masks used to minimize the spread of COVID-19 won't protect you or your pet from wildfire smoke. N-95 masks are available for dogs — and if you'll be spending a significant amount of time outdoors in an area with heavy smoke, you might want to buy one.

Be sure to choose a mask that's approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). However, respirator masks make it hard to breathe, so use them sparingly and only when necessary.

Bring your cats inside.

If you let your cats roam, bring them indoors to keep them safe. This will not only protect them from inhaling wildfire smoke, but it will also keep them safe from other wildfire hazards, like severe burns.

Stay updated.

Check the air quality index in your area regularly. Download the National Weather Service app to get alerts on wildfires in your area. You'll receive Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) messages on your phone if you're required to evacuate.

Severe symptoms of smoke inhalation can be expensive to treat. If your dog or cat is at risk of inhaling wildfire smoke, start searching for pet insurance today. Brought to you by Pet Insurer, Wag! Wellness lets pet parents compare insurance plans from leading companies like PetPlan and Trupanion. Find the “pawfect” plan for your pet in just a few clicks!

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