Smoke inhalation is a risk for pet health

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Our area’s recent forest fires have left much of the region with a lingering, smoky haze.  Exposure to the smoke in the air, especially over a period of days or weeks, can put our pets’ health in danger.

Humans and animals alike have natural barriers to protect their bodies from potentially dangerous material in the air. For example, cilia, or tiny hairs, line the airways to help collect foreign material before it can proceed more deeply into the respiratory tract. Immune cells in the lungs break down foreign material so it is more easily cleared from the body. The eyes produce a film of tears, which serves as a barrier to outside irritants.

Most of the serious health risks due to smoky air occur when the body’s natural defenses are either overwhelmed, or weakened due to illness. The most common health problems associated with the smoky air are ocular, respiratory, or cardiovascular disorders.

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Signs of ocular inflammation include squinting, reddening of the whites of the eyes, eyelid swelling, eye discharge, and rubbing or scratching of the eyes. A pet’s rubbing of irritated eyes is of particular concern since secondary trauma may occur, which could result in damage to the cornea.  These pets may require medication to soothe their eyes, and some may even require an Elizabethan collar to prevent corneal trauma. Pets who already have chronic eye disease, such as dry eye (KCS, or keratoconjunctivitis sicca), should be monitored very closely for worsening of symptoms.

Respiratory irritation may have a variety of symptoms, including sneezing, coughing, nasal discharge, wheezing, increased respiratory rate, and increased respiratory effort. Many pets have chronic respiratory conditions, such as chronic bronchitis, feline asthma, and tracheal collapse, which may flare up in response to irritation from the smoke.

Dogs and cats with cardiovascular conditions, such as heart murmurs, hypertension, and congestive heart failure, have an increased and potentially life-threatening risk of complications due to smoke inhalation. These pets should be monitored closely for signs of complications, such as difficulty breathing, lethargy, and collapse. It is important to keep these pets indoors as much as possible, and to avoid exercise outdoors when the air is smoky.

Luckily, most of the patients I have treated recently due to exposure to the smoky air have had mild symptoms that have been easily treated. And, thankfully, the air has been clearing up. However, it is still very important to keep a close eye on your pets, especially those with chronic health problems, and to contact your veterinarian with any health concerns.

Dr. Kelly Sulik owns and operates Animobile Mobile Veterinary Services in Tryon, N.C. She can be reached at