Living in southern California, there are many natural disasters we Golden State dwellers face on a seemingly year-round basis, including wildfires, mudslides and earthquakes. Events where nature one-ups man can occur randomly or may have a seasonal pattern to their destructive tendencies.
Fortunately, the seasonal nature of some disasters presents pet owners with the opportunity to prepare ahead so that our canine and feline friends face little or no hardships or health problems.
In California, the high heat and dry climate associated with summertime ramps up the concern for wildfires that can strike at any moment.
Wildfires, whether started by man-made causes (cigarette butts, campfires, etc.) or natural events (lightning, high-temperature combustion of environmental materials, etc.), commonly cause cataclysmic damage to affected communities.
Here's what you need to know about pets and wildfire safety.
Health Dangers Associated with Wildfires
The charred air plaguing wildfire-affected areas harbors irritants that can negatively impact animal and human health.
Airborne particulate material irritates pets’ eyes, respiratory tracts, skin and other body systems. Additionally, inhalation of toxic chemicals from burning fuels, metal, plastics and plant material (alkaloids) can cause mild to severe toxic effects to internal organs.
The clinical signs your pet may show post-exposure to irritants released by wildfires can vary from mild to severe, pending the degree of exposure, including:
- Blepharospasm: squinting of the eyelids
- Scleral injection and conjunctivitis: redness to the whites of the eyes (sclera) or tissue lining the eyelids (conjunctiva)
- Pawing at the eyes or rubbing the eyes/face on environmental surfaces
- Eye discharge
- Coughing, wheezing and other breathing difficulties
- Sneezing and nasal discharge
- Licking, chewing or scratching at affected skin
Direct exposure to heat will burn both external and internal body parts, including the skin, coat, eyes, mouth and respiratory tract.
Damaged trachea (windpipe) and lungs can’t properly function to permit air flow and oxygen delivery and will lead to hypoxia (oxygen deprivation). Deficient blood oxygen levels causes lethargy, increased respiratory rate and effort, weakness, ataxia (stumbling), syncope (fainting) or even death.
Pet Safety Tips for Wildfires
To help, owners must prioritize pet welfare during wildfires and other natural disasters. Here are my top wildfire safety tips for pets and pet parents.
1. Be aware of the wildfire risks in your area.
Greater Los Angeles is frequently affected by wildfires, so the Los Angeles Times features a continuously updated Fire Map to keep residents informed of potential dangers. Check online to see what resources are available in your area.
2. Reduce Fire Hazards in Your Yard and Home.
We can help protect our human and animal family members by taking steps to reduce the likelihood our homes and yards will be affected by wildfire, including removing flammable shrubbery, cleaning gutters and ensuring that no tree limbs hover over our roofs.
See the full set of tips via the Los Angeles Fire Department’s helpful Ready, Set, Go page.
2. Know your pet’s favorite hiding locations.
The urgency of natural disasters can motivate cats and small dogs to hide under beds, in closets, or to find other hidden spots to escape potential harm. The presence of medium and large-sized canines are generally more obviously known, but they too may flee from their usual spots in the house, unbeknownst to their owners.
Always be aware of your pets’ location in your house, yard or public place, and be familiar with their day-to-day habits, including preferred places for hiding and napping. Knowing your pets’ habits can help you grab them and evacuate more efficiently in an emergency.
3. Properly identify your pet.
Pets that escape from our homes during a disaster like a wildfire are more likely to safely return if they are wearing up-to-date identification. Dogs and cats should wear a collar or harness embroidered with their information or have an attached tag featuring their name and your phone number or other pertinent information.
You should also consider having your pet microchipped. The microchip will act as a permanent form of identificaiton that cannot fall off or get lost. Having your veterinarian implant a microchip and keeping your personal information up-to-date with the microchip’s manufacturer increases the likelihood your pet will come home in a safe and timely fashion.
A 2009 AVMA study evaluating “more than 7,700 stray animals at animal shelters showed that dogs without microchips were returned to their owners 21.9% of the time, whereas microchipped dogs were returned to their owners 52.2% of the time. Cats without microchips were reunited with their owners only 1.8% of the time, whereas microchipped cats went back home 38.5% of the time.”
Since microchip identification requires a scanner, and because collars, harnesses and tags may go missing, using multiple means of pet identification is my recommendation.
4. Be prepared to transport your pet in an emergency.
If wildfires force you to flee, use a pet carrier to provide safe transport.
Cats and small dogs should travel in a rigid or soft carrier. Vital information about your pet, including its name, species (dog, cat, etc.), color, breed or mix of breeds, weight, vaccination history and your contact information should be readily seen on the outside of the carrier.
Medium and large-breed dogs aren’t easily transported in a carrier, so use a collar or harness and leash to maintain control of their movements and to facilitate a safe escape.
5. Keep a sufficient supply of food, medications and supplies.
Your pet’s health maintenance plan can be interrupted by wildfires and other disasters, so keep an ample stock of food, medications and other supplies in readily accessible and transportable containers.
Some pets require special diets and consistent dosing with medications and supplements to manage chronic conditions, and ailments can emerge or worsen if proper preparations aren’t taken.
I suggest having at least seven days of your pet’s food and 30 days of medication and supplements prepared should disaster strike.
6. Immediately seek veterinary care if your pet has been exposed to a wildfire.
Wildfires can expose your pet to smoke, fire or other noxious substances, causing life-threatening damage to vital organs (brain, heart, lungs, etc.). Additionally, tissue damage from trauma or exposure to heat, smoke or chemicals may not be apparent to pet owners but will be more obvious to the trained eye of veterinarians.
If you have concerns that your pet has incurred wildfire-associated trauma or toxicity, urgent care should be sought at an emergency veterinary practice. Besides a physical examination, radiographs (x-rays), blood and urine testing and other diagnostics are commonly needed to establish a diagnosis and determine the best treatment plan.
For the sake of the well-being of your animal and human family, I hope you and your pets never face the life-changing chaos that occurs during wildfires.
All pet owners should have a disaster-preparedness strategy, including the above recommendations, if an event like a wildfire occurs.