Q: There was a fire in my apartment complex last night, and smoke permeated my apartment. Abe, my cat, seems fine. Should he see his veterinarian anyway?
A: Yes, because the effects of smoke exposure may not appear until up to six days after a fire. Veterinary experts recommend starting oxygen therapy and other treatment immediately to minimize harm.
Pets present during fires within an enclosed space, such as a home, usually develop problems with the respiratory tract, nervous system, eyes and skin. A pet exposed to smoke may suffer thermal burns of the airways and inhale particulate matter, carbon monoxide, cyanide gas and other toxic gases. Inhaled particulate matter and thermal injury cause airway swelling and blockage, sometimes leading to lung collapse. The resulting low oxygen levels prevent normal functioning of the organs throughout the body.
Carbon monoxide decreases oxygen levels in the blood by binding to hemoglobin, displacing oxygen. The neurologic effects of carbon monoxide can appear days after smoke exposure. Cyanide gas, a metabolic toxin produced when rubber, wool, plastic and other synthetic materials burn, interferes with energy production within cells.
Smoke exposure also can damage the eyes, causing corneal ulcers and decreased tear production that usually isn’t apparent immediately after the fire.
Another problem is that when Abe licks the smoky soot from his coat, he will ingest toxic particulate matter. Once your veterinarian examines him, Abe should be bathed to remove all soot and smoke odor before he can groom himself.
The outlook is good for pets that receive oxygen and other needed therapy immediately. Best wishes to Abe and to you as you deal with your smoky apartment.
Editor’s Note: An estimated 1,000 house fires are caused by pets each year. Pet Fire Safety Day in July is a good time to review these fire safety tips and your home fire evacuation plans.
Lee Pickett, V.M.D. practices companion animal medicine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.