Each year, across large portions of North America, wildfires burn hundreds of thousands of acres and threaten people, pets and wildlife. Despite evacuation warnings and the best efforts of fire personnel, occasionally our pets are injured by flames and smoke. What can you do when faced with one of these raging infernos? More importantly, are you prepared for an injury or burn to your pets or livestock?
By: Dr. Jim Humphries, Certified Veterinary Journalist, Veterinary News Network
The massive plumes of smoke from wildfires can often reach hundreds of miles downwind, creating hazy skies and dangerous conditions for people or pets with respiratory issues. For those living in the path of these fast-moving blazes though, danger can often come without warning.
According to National Geographic, more than 100,000 wildfires burn about 4-5 million acres of land each year. These fires are often in remote wilderness areas, but still claim almost 1,000 human lives, kill untold numbers of animals and cause a half a billion dollars in property damage. Reaching speeds of 14 miles per hour, the flames often out race the best containment efforts.
Faced with this sort of natural disaster, how are you going to keep your pets, your livestock and yourself safe?
As with any natural disaster, the best defense is having a plan and supplies at the ready. Evacuation kits should include not only materials for the human members of your family, but also food, water, medications and vaccination records for your pets. Livestock owners should have a means of transporting their animals and an emergency destination in the case of a mandatory evacuation.
But, fickle wind patterns and aggressive fires can often catch even the best-prepared person unaware. Knowing how to handle a burned pet or an animal suffering from smoke inhalation could spell the difference between a life saved and one lost to the wildfire. So, how can you help your pet in an emergency and then, of course, find good veterinary care as soon as you can.
Treating a pet with burns is not unlike treating a person with burns. The goals are to stop the burning process, prevent infection or further injury and keep the pet from going into shock. Even though you may know your animal very well, injured pets often react in unexpected ways. Before attempting any sort of first aid, consider using a muzzle to prevent unintended bites.
Never use butter, creams or any other folk remedy on a burn. For first and second degree burns, the best immediate remedy is to submerge the area in cool, not cold, water, pat the area dry and place a layer of sterile gauze lightly over the affected area. For third degree burns (complete skin destruction, blackened skin, fur falling out), an important step is to prevent shock.
Pets with pale or white gums, a rapid heartbeat or even rapid breathing could be at risk for shock. If your pet’s heart rate is in excess of 180 beats per minute, keep the head level with the rest of the body, loosely cover the burns and seek veterinary care immediately.
Outdoor pets in wildfire areas may be at risk for smoke inhalation as well. Pets with rapid breathing, increased respiratory effort, reddened eyes or a hoarse cough could suffer from some degree of smoke inhalation. If oxygen is available, delivering it via a mask could help speed recovery. Thanks to veterinarians, many fire crews and first responders now carry pet specific oxygen masks as part of their equipment and may assist you until you can find veterinary help.
The destruction of wildfires could also mean the potential for injury to your pets from debris. If you find a cut on your pet that is bleeding, try using a thick gauze pad and apply pressure to the wound for a minimum of three minutes. For most mild to moderate cuts, this action will allow a stable clot to form and give you time to seek veterinary care. In the case of severe bleeding on the legs, a tourniquet can be placed between the wound and the body along with a pressure bandage. Since this sort of hemorrhage is life-threatening, you must find a veterinarian immediately.
Even if you think your pet is ok after your treatment, it’s important to have a veterinarian evaluate the burn or injury. Since our pets can’t talk to us, we won’t know the true extent of his or her discomfort.