How wildfire smoke impacts pets: Expert advice on keeping your furry friends safe as Canada faces air quality alerts

A Canadian vet is advising pet owners to "use common sense" when it comes to wildfire smoke.

Rear view of a caucasian young woman with blue dyed short hair hugging her mixed breed dog at home
We talked to an expert on how to keep your pets safe as Environment Canada issues air quality statements due to wildfire smoke. (Getty)

After several Canadian provinces found themselves under low air quality alerts over the past two weeks due to wildfires raging, health and safety are top-of-mind for those impacted by smoke. We've heard from experts people are advised to stay indoors and those who are at-risk of respiratory conditions to consider N95 masks. But what about pets?

In May, dozens of fires were burning in B.C. and Alberta, displacing residents in communities like Fort Nelson that were closer to the burning. Alberta has even declared an "early start" to wildfire season this year.

As Canadian families gear up for another few months of intense wildfires, it's important to ensure the safety of all members — even the furry ones, like our dogs and cats. Read on for everything you need to know.

FORT NELSON, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA - MAY 14: Smoke rises after fire erupts in Western Canada on May 14, 2024. Wildfires in Western Canada prompted thousands to flee their homes, while 66,000 were on standby to evacuate as a fast-moving blaze threatened another community Saturday. A growing wildfire moved relentlessly toward Fort Nelson, British Columbia (B.C.), resulting in officials ordering more than 3,000 to leave their homes in Fort Nelson and nearby Fort Nelson First Nation.Within five hours, the fire had grown to 8 square kilometers. (3 square miles) from a modest half square kilometer.Tinder dry conditions and flames fanned by powerful winds caused the wildfire to spread and prompted the evacuation order, which was issued at 7.30 p.m. (Photo by Cheyenne Berreault/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Wildfires in Western Canada prompted thousands to flee their homes, while 66,000 were on standby to evacuate as a fast-moving blaze threatened another community. (Cheyenne Berreault/Anadolu via Getty)

Dr. Louis Kwantes, former president of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, told Yahoo Canada, "the danger mirrors the danger to people" for pets exposed to wildfire smoke. That's especially true for pets who go outside.

"Dogs love to go outside, but they can also be negatively affected by the smoke — they are," Kwantes said. "I'm thinking about cats with asthma, they can be significantly affected, even indoors too."

The impact of smoke is very similar to that on humans. "If they're really close to the fire, there's things like toxic gases and so forth. But most of it, is particulate matter that will actually get down into the lungs," the Alberta-based vet explained. That particulate matter is known as PM 2.5 particles.

The vet said pets are impacted by smoke in a similar way to humans. (Getty)
The vet said pets are impacted by smoke in a similar way to humans. (Getty)

"The function of a dog's lungs or cat's lungs is very, very similar to human lungs... Birds' lungs are different, but they also definitely can be affected... we recommend keep them inside if they can," he added. "So the damage that it can do to lung parenchyma, or lung tissue, is very similar between our pets and ourselves."

Though N95 masks are advised for high-risk people, according to Kwantes, masks for dogs are not the most effective safety measure. "They don't fit properly, and so if you have leakages, whether it's a homemade masks or another one, that's a problem. And also, [dogs] usually don't tolerate them very much," he explained.

"What we suggest is where the air quality is very poor, that we keep the pets inside."

For those with active dogs involved in outdoor activities, Kwantes added, it's best to limit those activities. "The more they're heavy breathing, it's going to impact the lung function more seriously when the air quality is poor."

Calico cat looking out the door of a residential home.
Dr. Louis Kwantes recommends keeping cats indoors anyways, but especially in low air quality. (Getty)

For cats — which he recommends keeping indoors anyways — he suggests HEPA filters for some rooms. "If we're in an area of the country where the air quality is particularly poor outside, and we're able to go to set up a HEPA filter for even a small part of the house, then both for pets and for ourselves, that's a better place to be when necessary."

Kwantes said owners shouldn't "push boundaries" with the dangers of wildfire smoke, and they should look out for symptoms. "If a person does take their dog out and be quite active... and they come back coughing or have significant problems, that's a real issue," the animal doctor said. "I would suggest that pet owners keep a close eye for the signs of problems with poor air quality."

These are generally respiratory problems, he said, including: runny nose, coughing, sneezing, runny eyes. "If you see those type of things, then you know that you're already in the danger zone," Kwantes said.

The sleeping dog's nose has a runny nose.
A runny nose in your pets could be a sign of a respiratory problem due to smoke. (Getty)

Mild signs, such as slight heavy breathing, should be a first warning sign to get your pets inside. But any escalation would be good enough of a reason for a visit to the vet. "Use your common sense," he advised.

Keep your pet out from areas of danger — that means keep them inside.

For animals with history of health problems, even mild symptoms could lead to serious consequences. "You don't want them to end up with chronic bronchitis or lung consolidation or other issues," he claimed. "I generally say, if you're concerned, that's enough of a concern to go to the veterinarian."

Even if the pet isn't showing signs of irritation, use yourself as measure, Kwantes added. "If we're healthy, and we can sense that the smoke is kind of irritating, you can be sure that it will be irritating your pet."

Let us know what you think by commenting below and tweeting @YahooStyleCA! Follow us on Twitter and Instagram.