The Danger of Smoke Inhalation and Pets

Picture of a dog on smoky background

Smoke inhalation is one of the primary causes of death in pets. Our furry friends become exposed to smoke usually as a result of house fires. Dogs and cats can hide when this happens, and even if they do take cover and shelter themselves from the danger of the fire, they might accidentally inhale smoke.

The gas and chemicals released when materials are being burned don’t just consist of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, more often than not, other toxic substances are involved, too, such as cyanide.

In today’s article, we’re going to look at the clinical signs of smoke inhalation in pets, how it is diagnosed, and how it is treated.

Why Is Smoke Inhalation so Dangerous?

As we have already mentioned, fire typically involves a combination of toxicologic agents and other products. It’s not uncommon for the symptoms of smoke inhalation to be caused not just by carbon monoxide and dioxide, but also by nitrogen, methane, zinc oxide, soot, phosphorus, and a variety of other substances.

On top of that, smoke has several chemical irritants, which produce inflammation in the pet’s airways and lungs. Moreover, smoke is usually hot, which means that it can also cause burns inside the airways and lungs.

As for the intoxication itself, carbon monoxide is by far the most dangerous gas produced in a house fire as it can get into the animal’s blood and can make it impossible for nutrients and oxygen to be delivered to the pet’s organs.

Symptoms of Smoke Inhalation in Pets

There isn’t a particular list of clinical signs that we can note here and that shows up in all animals that have been exposed to smoke. The symptoms can vary a lot from one pet to another as they depend on the amount of time they have inhaled smoke for.

For example, a pet that has inhaled smoke for just several minutes will have a different symptomatology compared to one that has had to do it for an hour or more. The number and type of chemicals in the smoke also have a say when it comes to what clinical signs are discerned.

Here is a list of common symptoms, although they don’t show up in all animals. 

  • Conjunctivitis
  • Nasal and facial inflammation
  • Burns on the animal’s face, paws, and muzzle
  • Burnt nostrils
  • Neurologic symptoms such as incoordination, seizures, or even coma
  • Excessive drooling or vomiting
  • Blue mucous membranes (cyanosis)
  • Coughing or respiratory distress
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Open-mouthed breathing
  • Foaming at the mouth
  • Vocalizations

When a pet has been exposed to smoke for a longer amount of time, they will experience neurologic symptoms and the cyanosis that we mentioned as there isn’t enough oxygen going to their essential organs and brain.

How Is Smoke Inhalation in Pets Diagnosed?

If you know that your cat or dog has been exposed to smoke, you should take him or her to the veterinary clinic as soon as possible. Time is of the essence, in this case, and fatalities happen more often than you might imagine.

The vet will most likely first use a pulse oximeter, which is a device that effectively measures the oxygen saturation in your pet’s blood. The result is important as it can tell the veterinarian whether there is enough or, on the other hand, insufficient blood going to your dog’s most important organs from the lungs.

Other tests that will have to be performed range from bloodwork to an electrocardiogram, but X-rays are found to be particularly useful in many cases. However, even if the radiograph doesn’t show any significant changes right after the pet has been exposed to smoke, things can change in a matter of 24 to 48 hours.

X-rays are performed repeatedly over a period of up to 72 hours so as to assess whether the treatment is working and if there is any change in terms of lung damage.

Since many pets that are exposed to smoke or fire sustain damage in their eyes, there could be several types of ophthalmologic tests performed on the animal, too.

How Do You Treat a Dog or Cat with Smoke Inhalation?

The answer to this question isn’t a straightforward one as it largely depends on the exposure time and the type of symptoms that the pet is showing.

Something important to note here is that, if you know that your cat or dog was exposed to smoke, you should take your pet to the vet clinic even if you don’t see anything alarming. More often than not, the symptoms progressively worsen over a period of up to 3 days. That is why hospitalization is usually necessary as a vet professional needs to continuously monitor the health status of the animal.

Oxygen therapy is almost always the treatment of choice in most cases of smoke inhalation in pets. Oxygen can be administered either by putting a dog or a cat in an oxygen cage, through a mask that was adapted to the animal’s face and muzzle or just by holding the oxygen tube near the animal’s nostrils.

Most pets that have suffered burns don’t show any interest in drinking water or eating food, which is why they will be given fluids and glucose intravenously. Since some animals can experience pain, the vet might also give them some pain medication.

If there are any burns inside the oral cavity and the pain medication doesn’t seem to be working, the vet might use a local anesthetic to numb the pain. Keeping the pet’s airways capable of inhalation and exhalation is paramount, which is why the animal might also receive treatment with bronchodilators.

Tobacco Smoke Exposure

Our pets are far more vulnerable to second-hand smoke than people, and there are several studies that have shown that both feline and canine patients can develop chronic bronchitis if they are exposed to tobacco smoke regularly.

Cats can also develop lymphoma, while dogs can develop cancer of the nose and lungs if they are repeatedly exposed to tobacco smoke. If you are a heavy smoker and you don’t plan to quit, at least make sure that your pets never get into the room where you smoke. Ideally, you shouldn’t smoke in the house at all.

As for how you can prevent smoke inhalation in pets in the event of a fire, make sure that your house is always well-ventilated and that you use smoke detection systems that are functioning.



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