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Wildfires and Animals: What To Do

Wildfires and Animals: What To Do

By Dr. Stuart Garber, DC

Image: Last year’s Canadian wildfires shrouded part of New York City in smoke, by Troy Dunkley/Reuters

Obviously, wildfires affect animals as much as they affect humans—and probably even more so, because as outdoorsy as some of us may be, dogs and especially equines spend most (if not all) of their time outside. Exposed to the elements and to everything that’s in the air.

And as attentive as most of us may be to our animals’ needs, we need to be even more aware of what’s going on—weatherwise, windwise and with our dogs and horses—when it’s wildfire season. And not just wherever you happen to be, but as I pointed out in my wildfire blog for people, the effects of a wildfire that for example is burning in British Columbia can affect your dog’s lungs as far away as South Carolina.

So, my first tip is to keep an eye on what’s happening wildfire wise throughout the hemisphere. And then to monitor your animals: note any changes in behavior, especially with their breathing or if they start scratching.

Given that it is wildfire season now, if there is one burning nearby or you learn that prevailing winds are bringing in wildfire air and particulate matter from miles away, keep an eye on the Air Quality Index (AQI) in your area. If the air is bad, keep your animals quiet. Usually, that means keeping them indoors more. If it’s over 100, consider not engaging in particularly rigorous animal exercise outdoors; if it’s over 150, monitor yourself and pets very closely (check breathing, pay attention to skin and eyes—are they dry, itchy?); and if it’s 200 or above, keep everyone inside.

If you have equines, don’t work them as hard, keep your rides closer to the barn where they’re kept. And while most barns are open-air in the west, keeping doors and openings shut when the air’s particularly bad is optimal. And while they need the exercise, keep that to a minimum; the harder you work a horse, the faster they breathe, the higher their heart rate, and the more toxins they’ll be bringing into their lungs (and throughout their bodies).

Horses, more than dogs, need to be monitored more closely. The reason being that, as pointed out by veterinarian and Ontario Veterinary College professor Dr. Janet Beeler-Marfisi, they bear more of a risk of developing equine asthma from exposure to smoke than most other animals. “Smoke and smog cause the lung inflammation associated with mild equine asthma,” said Dr. Beeler-Marfisi in a blog for the University of Guelph.

Dr. Beeler-Marfisi says there are two types of asthma that wildfires can bring out in horses: Mild Equine Asthma and Severe Equine Asthma, more commonly referred to as “hay cough” and “heaves.” Spotting them, though, isn’t so easy.

But symptoms include:

  • watery eyes or noses
  • flaring nostrils
  • heavy or labored breathing (noticeable through their abdomen or rib cage)
  • lack of appetite or thirst
  • fatigue
  • and most notably: a cough

It’s the cough that’s the real sign of something going on. That’s when you need to bring in your vet.

Again, though, aside from the cough, if you see any of these symptoms in your equine, let them rest. The respiratory rate at rest for horses is usually 12-24 breaths per minute; a respiratory rate that’s 30 or more per minute is not good—and again, similar to spotting a cough, a sign to bring in a vet.

Otherwise, keep your horse inside the barn, and try to keep the barn as free of dust as possible. That extends from the floor to the feeding area—so giving your equines hay and grains with minimal dust or soaking the hay in water is a great practice before feeding. Which is also a handy way to keep them hydrated—the other no-brainer. Make sure they’re drinking plenty of clean, fresh water and that it’s easily accessible.

Wildfire Smoke and Horses by Amy young, UC Davis Veterinary Medicine

Image: Wildfire Smoke and Horses by Amy young, UC Davis Veterinary Medicine

As noted in this 2020 blog from the UC-Davis Veterinary Medicine Center for Equine Health, “Horses drink most of their water within two hours of eating hay, so having water close to the feeder increases water consumption.” While keeping any animal hydrated sounds obvious, “Water,” added the UC-Davis blog, “keeps the airways moist and facilitates clearance of inhaled particulate matter. This means the windpipe (trachea), large airways (bronchi), and small airways (bronchioles) can move the particulate material breathed in with the smoke. Dry airways make particulate matter stay in the lungs and air passages.”

It's that particulate matter, which I’d written about in my human Wildfire blog, that’s so worrisome. And why the typical horse ride or dog run should be more limited during wildfire season or when there’s smoke in the air. 

Dr. Jessica Bell, an assistant professor in the college of veterinary medicine at Washington State University, told CNN late last month that it’s more important to limit the activities of animals as much as it is for humans. The reason being that they don’t breathe as deeply as we do. But if you must, or if Fido is just going stir crazy, Bell recommends a morning burst. “Early,” she explained to CNN, “before the air quality changes with settling of moisture.”

And in addition to making sure your animals have clean particulate-free water, maybe bring in an air purifier or filter for improving the indoor air quality.

As for dogs, they, too, need to be monitored for signs of possible wildfire-induced distress.

It’s been estimated that breathing in smoke-filled air for an entire day, as cited by the American Kennel Club, “can be equivalent to smoking about seven cigarettes per day — and that’s for a human!”

“Animals,” according to Dr. Barbara Hodges, the program director of advocacy and outreach for the California-based Humane Society Veterinary Medical Alliance, in a statement they put out last year, “are just as likely to be impacted by dense smoke and air quality issues as we are, particularly birds, and animals with compromised health, senior pets, young pets, brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds and equines,” said Dr. Barbara Hodges. “And cats—due to their fastidious grooming habits—should be confined indoors if possible because potentially toxic wildfire-generated particulate matter may contaminate their fur, leading to ingestion of these toxins.”

And it’s that detail about grooming habits that’s worth paying attention to. Dogs and horses have more hair than we do. Which is why New York’s Emergency Management recommends wiping your animal’s muzzle, feet and coat with a damp cloth after they’ve been outside. This will mitigate any of the particulate matter their hair follicles may have picked up while outside—particulate matter that’s not only potentially hazardous to their respiratory systems but to their skin.

And so, again, it’s important to keep an eye on their fur as well as their behavior. And those brachycephalic (short-muzzle) breeds include, as noted by Dr. Aly Cohen of Cornell’s Richard P. Riney Canine Health Center in one of their recent blogs, bulldogs, Boston terriers and pugs.

Here are symptoms to keep an eye on with your dog:

  • irritation of the throat, nose and eyes, making them red or watery
  • coughing, gagging or a fast respiratory rate—even when they’re at rest
  • difficulty breathing

If your dog is exhibiting any of these symptoms, call your vet right away.

In terms of prevention, or treating your dog or horse before their conditions become too compromising, there are other courses of action aside from keeping them indoors and cutting down on their exercise or activity. These include the following supplements, as outlined by Dogs Naturally:

  • Bovine colostrum—a good anti-inflammatory
  • Apple cider vinegar—effective for itchy skin and paws and applied as a foot bath, a spray or a body rinse
  • Bee pollen—another good anti-itch supplement
  • Herbs—especially nettles (a good antihistamine) and astralagus (another immune booster)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids—a good anti-inflammatory (mostly in fish oil and for horses, flaxseed is easier for them)
  • Quercetin—another effective antioxidant/antihistamine

There are also effective biotherapy extracts that I have tested in my practice – plant stem cells derived from Briar Rose, Black Currant and Lithy Tree, along with specific combinations of mineral extracts as found in stibnite and galena and, equally important, certain homeopathic sarcodes that regulate the body’s organs. As a result of the success using these remedies, I went on to combine them in bioformulas for canines (in 2017) and then for equines just last year. In fact, it was for Desi, one of our horses who’d come to us with a respiratory condition (developed from having spent nearly a decade in a commercial boarding facility), that I’d created my Lung & Allergy bioformula—one he would just lick out of my hand. And within minutes he’d be breathing normally again.

Again, though, you won’t always see the smoke. So, the best preventative is keeping an eye on your animal’s behavior. If they’re doing something out of the ordinary, chances are they’re trying to tell you something.

Email Dr. Garber for more information.

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