Wildfires have ravaged the West Coast, affecting air quality, ruining homes and businesses and causing apocalyptic skies. The fires have also put cats at risk for smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion, both of which could have fatal consequences.
“Smoke is an air pollutant just like anything else, whether it be car exhaust or fossil fuels. As an air pollutant, all of us, animal or human, should limit our exposure,” says Jennifer Sergeeff, DVM, DACVIM, internist and medical director at BluePearl Speciality and Emergency Pet Hospital in Daly City, Ca., whose practice and home were in the smoke zone of the fires during their peak.
Even indoor cats are susceptible.
“You still get some smoke,” Dr. Sergeeff says. “It’s much less than [a dog or outdoor cat] because if it does come in, it’s usually not the big particles. The ash is going to stay outside.”
What’s more, the wildfires in California coincided with a heatwave.
“Those of us who have it were running our AC at the same time because it was 97 degrees,” Dr. Sergeeff says.
The air conditioners were bringing air from the outdoors inside, bringing smoke indoors, where cats were inhaling it. Dr. Sergeeff says it’s crucial to ensure that the vents in the AC are clean and updated. She also shared other tips for spotting smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion and safely evacuating with a cat.
What are signs of smoke inhalation in cats?
If you notice your cat’s eyes and watery or red, they may be suffering from smoke inhalation. It’s particularly important to monitor cats with pre-existing lung or heart conditions.
“[They] may be prone to worsening cough, wheezing, almost asthmatic-like symptoms,” Dr. Sergeeff says.
Breathing difficulty may get gradually worse during the first 24 hours following smoke inhalation.
What are the signs of heat exhaustion in cats?
Heat exhaustion happens when a pet’s body absorbs more heat than it can dissipate. Unlike dogs, cats generally do not pant.
“Cats will hide,” Dr. Sergeeff says. “They’ll be flat and lethargic. They will be limp. They don’t usually vomit. That’s not a thing with cats. If it’s super serious, they’ll remember they’ll have mouths and pant. That’s a true distress system in cats.”
If you suspect your cat has heat exhaustion, put them in the carrier and call the vet. You may be able to sit in the car with the AC all the way up.
“If they are not starting to perk up or act normal in 10-15 minutes, they need to go to the vet,” Sergeeff says.
The vet may use IVs to cool off Kitty internally.
You should keep your cat indoors during wildlife season
No judgment if you allow Kitty outside in normal times, but this is the time to keep them in, and not just because of the fires themselves.
“Normal wildlife that sits in canyons are coming down into residential areas,” Sergeeff warns. “Where I live, it’s not uncommon [to see] bobcats, cougars and foxes. Your cat is a meal for those species.”
How to evacuate with a cat
Preparation is key if you have to evacuate. Try to get your cat used to the carrier by putting treats in, something Dr. Sergeeff successfully did with one of her two kitties.
“If I open the closet where it is kept, he runs into it, and I can just zip him in,” she says.
Regardless of whether Kitty loves or hates the carrier, Dr. Sergeeff recommends putting them in it before you start gathering other things.
“Find your cat before it knows anything is wrong because as soon as you start grabbing your medications or yelling at your husband … your cat’s instinct are, ‘Something is wrong, I’m hiding,’” she says.
If possible, opt for a more private space rather than a pet-friendly shelter, which may cause more anxiety in your cat.
“What a lot of evacuees do is stay with friends, rent an Airbnb or go to a pet-friendly hotel,” Dr. Sergeeff says.
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