Integrative Pet Vet column: Pets and wildfire smoke exposure

Dr. Ron Carsten
Integrative Pet Vet

This summer of heat, drought and wildfires has created numerous challenges for our pets. One obvious concern has been exposure to wildfire smoke. Depending on how close you are to the wildfire and the prevailing air currents, the concentration of smoke and particulates varies. This means that the risk factors for injury from smoke inhalation also vary, which means that there may be periods when avoiding time outdoors is important.

Smoke can cause irritation to the eyes, nasal tissues, throat and lungs. In addition, smoke can contain particulates that, depending on size, can compromise the lungs. The tissues around the eyes and lining the sinus, throat and lungs are known as mucous membranes. Properly functioning mucous membranes play a significant role in maintaining health. They are considered the immune system’s first line of defense by forming a barrier that micro-organisms like bacteria are normally unable to penetrate. In addition to this barrier function, some of the mucous membranes, like the lining of the trachea, have specialized microscopic anatomy. Some cells that line the trachea secrete mucus while other cells have cilia that are small projections that have a sweeping action. Mucus traps the inhaled particles and the cilia sweep the material toward the throat area.

In addition to the effects of the mucus trapping and the action of the cilia, the airway size changes from the throat to the lung air sacs significantly limits particles from reaching the air sacs. Since the trachea connects the throat to the lungs and is the way that air is inhaled and exhaled, these activities for limiting potentially damaging substances from reaching the lung is no surprise.

The function of the lung is to allow oxygen to enter the blood and carbon dioxide to leave. Inhaled oxygen in the lung air sacs has only a thin layer of cells separating it from the red blood cells in the blood stream. Red blood cells carry the oxygen to the body tissues for use and pick the tissue carbon dioxide for removal from the body.

Even though this is a beautifully designed system, it is susceptible to injury from inhaled smoke and particles. Contact with smoke and particles can lead to irritation of the mucous membranes. With enough smoke exposure, which depends on the concentration of the smoke and length of exposure, the irritation can lead to swelling of the mucous membranes. This swelling can lead to breathing difficulty and coughing that can get progressively worse during the first 24 hours after exposure. Bacterial pneumonia can be a delayed consequence. Eye, throat and sinus mucous membranes can also be irritated.

Keep in mind that for the average pet in the valley that is not directly in the wildfire areas, the smoke exposure is going to be less damaging. It may only create mild irritation and annoyance. Just like in humans, the most susceptible to the injuring effects of smoke inhalation are the geriatric, puppies and kittens, and those with existing lung problems.

When the smoke builds up, avoid outdoor activities so that exposure can be limited. Be conservative with opening windows or running air conditioners, which can result in more smoke exposure in the indoor spaces. Watch for signs that your pet is experiencing problems from smoke inhalation. These signs include coughing or gagging, difficulty breathing, eye irritation, nasal discharge, weakness, disorientation and loss of appetite. The severity of the signs will determine if your pet requires immediate veterinary care that might include oxygen therapy and other emergency measures. Keep in mind that some of these signs can indicate a heart problem that is separate from a smoke related respiratory issue.

For those pets that may be experiencing low levels of ongoing stress to the respiratory system, the lungs and mucous membranes can be supported with nutrients like vitamin A and vitamin C. Herbs like mullein and licorice have traditional use for respiratory problems because they both have anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce the reaction to the irritating properties of the smoke. Mullein also has expectorant properties.

If you have concerns or questions about your pet contact your veterinarian.

Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.

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