California Wildfires Affect Pets' Eyes and Respiratory System

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Recent wildfires in southern California have affected the lives of both people and their pets. The Los Angeles Times's L.A. Now Wildfires section shows some haunting images of the tragedy along with the valiant efforts of the firefighters working to contain the blazes.

Having lived in Los Angeles since 2006, I've witness the impact fire damage has on homes and lives on multiple occasions in the past few years. Although I've never been forced to leave my home, noticeable changes in the air quality (which is overall fairly good on a day to day basis, despite what everyone thinks) could seen, smelled, and felt, even in West Hollywood. In locations directly downwind or adjacent to wildfires, the air takes on a charred aroma from the destruction of natural and man-made materials. Inhalation and contact with these airborne irritants can adversely affect the health of animals and people. Coarse and fine particulate matter act as inflammatory triggers in both the ocular (eye) and respiratory tracts. Additionally, chemicals derived from burning fuels, metal, plastics, and even plant material (alkaloids) can cause mild to severe toxic effects when inhaled.

The signs your pet will show post-exposure can vary from mild to severe, depending on the degree of exposure and damage incurred.


Ocular (eye) clinical signs include:

–Bletharospasm - Squinting, which may appear like your pet is forcibly closing one or both eyes

–Conjunctivitis - Inflammation of the conjunctiva (the tissue underneath the eyelid)

–Ocular discharge - Discharge can appear clear, white, green, or even blood

–Pruritis - Itching in an attempt to provide relief to eye irritation causes pets to paw at the eyes or rub the face on environmental surfaces. Such trauma can exacerbate underlying eye inflammation or lead to corneal ulceration

–Scleritis - Swelling of the blood vessels of the sclera (white of the eye) renders a red or bloodshot appearance


Respiratory clinical signs include:

–Cough - Dry, or moist and productive (material being expelled), or non-productive cough can occur

–Nasal Discharge - Like the eyes, nasal discharge may be clear, white, green, or even bloody

–Sneezing - To remove inhaled irritants, the body will attempt to expel air to clear the nasal passages

–Wheezing - Airway restriction leads to a whistle-like sound when air moves in or out of the nose or lungs

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–Increased respiratory rate - The chest wall can be seen moving in and out faster than normal (dog=10-30 and cat=20-30 breaths per minute, respectively)

–Increased respiratory effort - Visible use of the abdominal wall muscles to aid in respiration

–Orthopnea - Straightening of the neck to reduce angularity in the trachea (windpipe) and provide a more linear passage for air to reach the lungs.


Direct exposure to heat and smoke can have more serious health consequences. Thermal burns can affect the skin, coat, eyes, oral cavity, and respiratory tract. Traumatized pulmonary (lung) tissue loses normal functional capacity, which can lead to hypoxia (oxygen deprivation). Deficient oxygen causes clinical signs of weakness, ataxia (stumbling), subsequent syncope (fainting), and even death.

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Reduce the likelihood that your pet will be exposed to allergy triggers and other health consequences from wildfires by limiting outdoor activities, keeping windows shut, using air conditioning, and referencing your local Air Quality Index (AQI) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention-Wildfires website for safety guidelines.

Should your pet have a suspected or known exposure to fire, smoke, or airborne chemicals and show any clinical signs of illness, please immediately pursue examination and treatment with your veterinarian or emergency veterinary hospital.

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Do you know of anyone in the Los Angeles area who was affected by the recent wildfires? Unfortunately, companion animals may be left behind, lost, or electively set free during the evacuation process. Good Samaritans encountering animals in need can seek assistance at multiple shelters, which are listed on the L.A County Online Department of Animal Care and Control's website.

Dr. Patrick Mahaney

"California Wildfires Affect Pets' Eyes and Respiratory System" originally appeared on PetMD.com.

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