As smoke from the wildfires burning in Canada drifts southward, large swaths of the United States are experiencing some of the worst air quality on record.
Experts have cautioned people in the affected areas across the Northeast and Midwest to stay indoors to decrease their risk of developing respiratory issues and other complications stemming from the air pollution. But humans aren’t the only ones whose health can be impacted by the smoke from wildfires.
“Unfortunately, we can see issues with poor air quality in pets,” Dr. Dana Varble, chief veterinary officer at the North American Veterinary Community, told HuffPost. “The most famous example of this is birds, the literal canary in a coal mine! Birds have large lungs and air sacs which make them especially sensitive to chemicals and contaminants in the air such as smoke.”
While birds are particularly susceptible to health complications from poor air quality, cats and dogs can be vulnerable as well.
“Short-nosed breeds like pugs, Pekingese, French bulldogs and Persian cats are at higher risk due to shortened nasal passages that might otherwise filter out particulate matter,” said Dr. Wendy Hauser, the founder of Peak Veterinary Consulting and a special adviser to ASPCA Pet Health Insurance. “Additionally, pets with underlying heart or respiratory diseases are at higher risk for complications from breathing smoky air.”
Be extra mindful if your pet has a cardiovascular or lung condition, like chronic bronchitis or asthma ― or if the animal is very young or old.
“Poor air quality can cause respiratory problems, eye irritation and other health issues in pets,” said Rachel Hinder, a veterinary technician and claims manager at Embrace Pet Insurance.
Although the air quality issues don’t inherently affect pets less or more than humans, the consequences might be more severe as they can’t take precautions like wearing a mask or otherwise covering their mouths properly.
“Pets can be more impacted by poor air quality than humans because they do not know to limit their time outside,” Hinder said. “Pets that spend a lot of time outdoors, are more likely to be affected by poor air quality.”
What signs should pet owners look out for?
As with humans, respiratory tract irritation is a common effect of wildfire smoke in pets. Pay attention to noisy, labored breathing and increased respiratory rates.
“Some signs that pet owners can look out for in their animals that may indicate they are being affected by poor air quality include coughing or wheezing, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, sneezing or runny nose, eye irritation or discharge, lethargy or decreased activity level, loss of appetite, vomiting or diarrhea,” Hinder explained.
If you have pet birds, they might bob their tails, sit at the bottom of their cages, struggle to breathe or just act lethargic and uninterested in eating.
“The signs a pet can show if they are having trouble with air quality can be more subtle than pet owners realize,” said Dr. Heather Berst, a veterinarian and medical lead with Zoetis. “Some pets, especially cats, may have more subtle signs such as they are not moving around or playing as much or they start eating and drinking less. The air quality can affect their eyes and other mucous membranes too, so be aware of any eye discharge, rubbing their faces, red eyes or holding their eyes shut.”
Contact your veterinarian or local emergency veterinary hospital for if your pet displays any of these symptoms and continue monitoring them.
“Unfortunately, some pets may show delayed signs in a few weeks and develop a cough or wheeze after the exposure,” Berst added.
How can people protect their pets during times of poor air quality?
“The recommendations for pets are very similar to the recommendations for people,” Berst said. “You should keep your pet indoors with the doors and windows closed as much as possible. If your cat is an outdoor cat, you should bring it inside. Limit the length and intensity of your dog’s walks. It is best just to take them out and have them do their business and bring them inside.”
Pet birds that spend time in an outdoor enclosure should also be brought indoors while the air quality remains poor. Provide good ventilation and consider investing in a high-quality air purifier. Frequent vacuuming can also minimize exposure to pollutants.
“Do not exercise your pets in poor air quality,” said Dr. Preston Turano, a veterinarian and spokesperson for AKC Pet Insurance. “For livestock and horses, consult your veterinarian.”
These large outdoor animals will need weeks to recover from the effects of an air pollution event, so refrain from moving or exercising them in the immediate aftermath as well.
“Also, remember that dogs cool by panting which can increase their exposure to respiratory irritants,” Varble said. “Avoid the warmest parts of the day and walk in the early morning or evening to reduce their risk as well. Again, this is especially important in flat-faced dogs who often have underlying respiratory issues related to the shape of their nose, airways, and even lungs.”
If you do notice any concerning symptoms, try to take a video and show your vet to help them assess what is happening.
“Cats with ‘asthma-like coughs’ often appear like they are trying to cough up a hairball, when in fact they are coughing,” said Dr. Michelle Meyer, the former president of the American Academy of Feline Practitioners. “Videos of how the cat is breathing and any videos of the cough-like episode that is occurring are a huge help to your veterinarian. Often cats do not exhibit the behavior that the caregiver is witnessing at home while they are in the veterinary exam room.”
Otherwise, just make the time for indoor pet activities until the air quality gets better.
“Some pets may feel cooped up from less playtime,” Berst said. “If that is the case, play with them inside.”
She recommended puzzle games as a fun distraction when going outside is not a good idea.
“If you have a pet that is extremely high energy, taking them to a doggie daycare facility that has good indoor facilities is a great option,” added Dr. Mondrian Contreras, a veterinary expert for Pumpkin Pet Insurance.
In general, stay up to date with any air pollution-related news in your area, whether from wildfire smoke or industrial emissions. That way, you can take the proper steps to protect yourself and your pets when something happens.
“If you have a pet that falls into any of the high risk categories-a puppy or kitten senior pet, a pet with lung disease or a pet with a pushed-in face, you may want to consider taking them away a few days until the conditions improve,” Berst said. “It is a great idea to have pet preparedness kit ready at all times if you need to evacuate with your pet in times like the current one or other emergency situations.”