House fires are deadly to both people and pets alike, and the same medical issues that can affect humans can also apply to pets including burns, smoke inhalation, and carbon monoxide toxicity. Here are some medical concerns associated with the aftermath of a house fire, what you can do to help your pet, what to expect once your pet is evaluated by a veterinarian – plus ways to keep your pet safe in the future.
Your pet may appear normal upon being rescued from a fire, but initial appearances can be deceiving. Even if your pet didn’t come into contact with fire and get burned, they may have severe internal issues that need to be addressed.
Carbon Monoxide Toxicity
The most common cause of fire-related deaths in pets after a house fire is not skin damage from burns, but organ damage from carbon monoxide toxicity. During a fire, carbon monoxide replaces the oxygen in the air. When a pet breathes carbon monoxide instead of oxygen, their organs cannot function correctly. The first organs to be affected are the lungs, heart, and brain. Symptoms of carbon monoxide toxicity include:
Smoke itself is hot and can burn the airways when your pet breathes. The smoke particles can also damage the lining of the airways and limit how much air your pet can breathe. This damage can cause swelling within the airway which may not be obvious immediately. Over time, the swelling may actually become so significant that your pet’s airway may become blocked, preventing him or her from breathing at all.
The smoke can also trigger the body to release chemicals and inflammatory cells that may worsen the swelling and further damage the airways. This release can be so severe that it may negatively affect all organs within the body and send your pet into shock. Watch your pet closely for:
Coughing or hacking
If your pet came into contact with the fire or hot surface, they may suffer burn damage as well. Some burns are minor and may look like a sunburn. Other burns can be so severe that the skin is burned away, exposing underlying tissue or muscle.
Burns cause your pet to lose moisture quickly and decreases their ability to stay warm. Because burns are extremely painful, your pet may pant or breathe heavily, which can further increase their risk of dehydration.
Corneal ulcers and burns on the eyes are also common after a house fire. Watch your pet closely for signs of squinting, eye swelling, or eye redness. Monitor skin burns for oozing, skin discoloration, or changes in skin thickness.
Because your pet was in a hot environment, they are also at risk of overheating and heat stroke. Becoming overheated can lead to the same release of chemicals and inflammatory cells by the body as smoke inhalation. While heat stroke may appear mild at first, some pets can go into shock if their temperature gets high enough.
Once your pet has been rescued, it’s important to get them cool as quickly as possible. Cooling them down also helps minimize the damage of smoke inhalation and may help with mild burns. Do not use ice as it cools a pet down too quickly and can worsen the damage associated with the fire and smoke. Instead, rinse your pet with tepid or cool water. If there are burns, keep them under running, tepid water for at least ten minutes to help stop the burning process.
Offer your pet cool or tepid water to drink, but don’t force them if they are not interested. If oxygen is available, such as oxygen masks offered by fire fighters or EMT personnel, allow your pet to breathe from the mask as much as they are comfortable with. If your pet panics when a mask is placed on their face, try to get it as close to their nose or mouth as you can without stressing them out. Keep your pet as calm as you can.
Once your pet has cooled down, gently wrap them in a loose blanket, especially if there are burns. Burns prevent pets from regulating body heat, so all the work you did to get your pet cool may lead to them becoming too cold which can set back the healing process.
Take your pet to the veterinarian as soon as possible. Some effects of house fires can take several hours to become lethal, so veterinary care immediately may prevent them from occurring. Your veterinarian will assess your pet’s heart, lungs, eyes, and skin. They will also check the mouth for signs of swelling, and may want to take X-rays of the lungs to ensure smoke damage is not severe.
Lab work is often necessary to monitor for signs of shock. Your vet will likely keep your pet in an oxygen cage or on some other form of oxygen supplementation, as well as administering IV fluids to keep them hydrated and to prevent shock from progressing.
If there are extensive burns, multiple surgeries may be necessary to treat them and allow the skin to heal fully. Infection and dehydration are extremely common with severe burns, so your pet may need to be hospitalized or rechecked regularly to monitor for these issues.
Be sure to follow your veterinarian’s instructions when you’re free to go home, and give all medications exactly as prescribed so that your pet is comfortable and heals well.
There is no way to fully protect your pet in the event of a house fire, but these prevention tips go a long way.
1. Check Smoke Detectors Often
Even if you’re not home, neighbors may hear your smoke detectors going off and call for help. Have a smoke detector on every floor and outside of every sleeping area.
Detectors should be dusted off once a month so nothing is blocking sensors, and they should be tested at this time as well to make sure they work. Replace the batteries yearly, or consider upgrading to a model that includes batteries that are guaranteed for 10 years.
2. Make Your Home Pet-proof
Pet-proofing your house looks different for everyone. Installing safety locks on stove knobs (or pulling them off entirely) is good when you’re not home, and baby gates keep them from rooms with potential fire hazards. For especially curious pets, keeping them crated is another safe bet.
3. Never Leave Candles or Warmers Unattended
All it takes is one happy tail to knock over a burning candle or portable heater. Unplug space heaters, hair dryers, curling irons, candle warmers, etc. when you’re not in the room, and blow out candles if you’re not there to watch them.
4. Secure Super Chewers
Dangling cords are an accident waiting to happen around pets who love to chew. Keep them away from cords to reduce their risk of electrocution and fire hazards from damaged wiring. If your pet has a knack for chewing, make sure you do your part to help them break the habit.
5. Smoke at Your Own Risk
Smoking materials are the leading cause of residential fire deaths in the US. Not only is second-hand smoke harmful to your pets, but it is more likely to start a fire if you smoke indoors. Avoid smoking in bed when you’re drowsy, and never smoke inside if anyone in your home uses and oxygen tank.
6. Include Your Pet in Your Escape Plan
Practice calling your pet in different voices (escalating from calm to panicked) and make sure they respond every time. Review an escape plan with every member of the family and have them all look out for the pets – but never delay your escape in an effort to save your pet.
If you can’t find your pet during a fire, do not try to retrieve them but let the fire department personnel know immediately that they are still inside. Have your pet microchipped so that if they escape, you can find them after the fire. Place a sticker or identification in the window of your home so that emergency personnel know there is a pet in the home when you aren’t there.
Surviving a house fire is emotionally and physically traumatic. Keep these tips in mind to help save lives and minimize the toll a fire takes on your family. If you are unsure if your pet needs medical attention, always call your veterinarian’s office to discuss your pet’s symptoms.