Wildfire smoke endangers animal health

Veterinarians are reminding animal owners that poor air quality can be as hard on animals as humans, if not more so.

Smoke from the worst wildfire season in Canada's history has been drifting southward since March, triggering air quality alerts across the United States, from Utah to Washington, D.C.

Wildfire smoke endangers animal health
Vast portions of eastern Canada and the United States will likely continue to experience poor air quality because of wildfires that continue to rage out of control in Quebec and other provinces.

The intensity of the wildfires ramped up in early June, and Canadian officials estimate that more than half of the approximately 425 active wildfires are out of control. The fires span multiple provinces, causing more than 26,000 people to be under evacuation orders in British Columbia, Alberta, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, Quebec, and Nova Scotia.

The smoke from these fires caused the level of particulate matter in the air to reach hazardous levels into the New York metropolitan area, central New York state, and parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey on June 7. Large regions of unhealthy air extended as far as North Carolina and Indiana throughout the week, placing millions of residents at risk, according to AirNow, a government source for air quality data.

On June 7, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced approximately one million N95-style masks will be made available to New Yorkers as smoke and haze from the ongoing Canadian wildfires continue to impact air quality throughout the state.

Last week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a news conference that the government's modeling forecasts higher-than-normal fire activity across most of Canada through to August.

Veterinarians urge taking precautions

"The risks of poor air quality to pets are similar to those of people, which mainly impact the heart and lungs," said Dr. Aly Cohen, extension veterinarian at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine's Richard P. Riney Canine Health Center.

"While people can wear masks outdoors, which may minimize inhalation of small particulate matter, unfortunately, our pets cannot," Dr. Cohen said. "For this reason, decreasing exposure is the best step for protecting our pets."

Staff members at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine's (Penn Vet) Ryan Veterinary Hospital in Philadelphia have seen an uptick in cases of breathing difficulties in cats and dogs. These cases have been seen among those not only with preexisting respiratory and heart conditions but also in otherwise healthy animals, according to Dr. Katie Krebs, assistant professor of clinical primary care at Penn Vet.

Brachycephalic dog breeds such as Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, and Pugs, as well as geriatric and pediatric animals are also more susceptible to poor air quality, added Dr. Cohen.

"Exposure may cause irritation to the throat, nose, and eyes, making them red or watery," she said. "It can also cause coughing, gagging, a fast respiratory rate even when they are at rest, or difficulty breathing."

Additionally, pet birds such as parakeets, parrots, and cockateels are especially sensitive to changes in air quality, more so than mammals.

Pet owners may also observe changes in their animal companion's behavior. The acrid smell of smoke, Dr. Krebs said, will likely curb many a pet's enthusiasm for the outdoors.

"Dogs and cats are way more sensitive to smells than people are, so when the air smells bad to us, I can't even imagine what my dog is smelling," she said.

Protecting animals

Both Drs. Cohen and Krebs advised limiting a pet's time outdoors while the air quality remains poor. Indoors, keep windows closed and use a fan or air conditioner to keep the inside air moving. If air filters are an option, use them.

For large animals, specifically horses, Dr. Michelle Abraham, assistant professor of clinical critical care medicine at Penn Vet, suggested the following steps:

  • Avoid or limit riding and exercise.
  • Minimize additional exposure to dust and allergens, particularly in these dry conditions. Wet hay before feeding, clean stalls during turnout only, choose low dust bedding, and hose down dirt exposed/dusty areas where animals congregate.
  • Clean water buckets frequently.
  • Call your veterinarian immediately if you notice signs of respiratory disease such as a cough, nasal discharge, and difficulty breathing.

Additional information on protecting animals from wildfire smoke is available on the AVMA website.

For estimates of when and where wildfire smoke events may occur over the next two days, visit The BlueSky Canada smoke forecast.