How Wildfire Smoke Affects Wildlife—and Your Pets

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Authorities have urged people across swaths of the Midwest and Northeast to stay indoors as smoke from Canadian wildfires compromises air quality in more than a dozen U.S. states. Inhaling wildfire smoke can lead to health issues ranging from coughing and wheezing to more serious respiratory and cardiovascular problems, particularly for those with underlying conditions—hence why officials have told people in affected areas to avoid going outside if possible, and to wear a good-quality mask if it can’t be avoided.

Officials in New York City, where air quality is particularly bad, have even enacted a “work suspension” for carriage horses, citing unsafe conditions. That raises an important point: wildfires pose risks to wildlife as well as humans—and animals often don’t have the luxury of staying indoors, says Olivia Sanderfoot, a postdoctoral fellow who studies the effects of wildfire smoke on wildlife at the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science at University of California, Los Angeles.

“Animals, just like us, need to breathe,” Sanderfoot says. “If the air that they’re breathing is full of toxic particles, that is going to have an impact on their health.” Just as with humans, animals may experience respiratory distress, inflammation, and poor immune function in smoky conditions, she says.

Many plant and animal species have, however, adapted to survive and even thrive in wildfire conditions. Fires can spark new plant growth by burning up debris, improving soil fertility, and allowing certain types of seeds to germinate, for example. “Fires are not inherently a bad thing. Wildfires are a natural disturbance,” Sanderfoot says. The difference is that now, largely due to human behavior and climate change, wildfires are growing more intense and causing more extreme and far-flung ripple effects.

It’s not yet clear how these changing fire patterns will affect plants and animals over time. But relatively short-term smoke exposure isn’t likely to lead to mass crop or livestock death, says Gail Carlson, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College. That doesn’t mean it’s harmless, though. “Air pollution is a major, major health threat, and that is true for anybody with lungs,” Carlson says.

That goes for pets too, says Lori Teller, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. There’s no exact threshold at which smoke exposure becomes dangerous, as it depends on your pet’s age and overall health, as well as the air quality in your area. But if local conditions are bad, Teller recommends keeping pets indoors with the windows closed (except for short bathroom breaks, if necessary) and looking for ways they can play and exercise inside.

If your pet has been exposed to smoke, look for warning signs like coughing, gagging, panting, difficulty breathing, red or watery eyes, runny nose, fatigue, disorientation, and significantly decreased appetite, Teller says. If your pet is exhibiting these red flags, you may want to consult a veterinarian, who can treat your animal with medication, oxygen therapy, or other remedies if necessary.

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As for wild animals? There’s not much humans can do to offer immediate help, Sanderfoot says, beyond investing in initiatives that support habitat restoration and conservation and supporting more robust climate policies.

“We need to keep our attention focused on how smoke is impacting our communities and wildlife even when we have blue skies,” Sanderfoot says. “The work that needs to be done to mitigate these events, and reduce risks when they happen, cannot be done just during the crisis.”

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