Wildfires have become more intense and destructive in recent years, due to changes in rain and snow patterns, drought-like conditions and land management issues. While wildfires often occur naturally, the area of the western United States affected by them in the past few decades has roughly doubled—leaving many people and animals coping with the disastrous outcomes.

Dr. Barbara Hodges, director of advocacy and outreach for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, notes that wildfire smoke affects dogs, cats, horses, birds and farm animals such as goats, pigs, sheep and cows, as well as us. Here are her recommendations for dealing with wildfires:

Preparing for a wildfire

  • Make sure you have disaster preparedness plans that include your pets, and review these plans with your family on a regular basis so you can leave swiftly.
  • Have an evacuation kit for each pet that includes a transport carrier, collar with identification, leash, food, water, bowls, medications, vaccination records, microchip number and pertinent phone numbers, including those of your veterinarian, your local emergency clinic and animal shelter. Make sure your pet’s microchip information is up to date.
  • Make sure you also have evacuation plans for horses and farm animals. This includes ensuring you have trailers or other vehicles to transport them and having a plan for where you will house them. During non-disaster times, it is important to familiarize these animals with transport vehicle entry and exit so you can safely and smoothly evacuate them if necessary. If some animals will need to shelter in place, do not confine them in potentially unsafe areas where they may be trapped by fires.

When the wildfire hits

  • Monitor local air quality regularly throughout the day and adjust your activities according to the recommendations of experts, including wearing a protective mask when appropriate. To help your pets, you must first take care of yourself.

  • Stay current on wildfire status and evacuation alerts and be ready to move quickly. Be proactive and do not wait longer than necessary; fires can travel much faster than you might expect.

  • Do not let indoor/outdoor pets roam freely. Their health will be compromised by smoke exposure, they may hide or flee in fear, and you may not be able to locate them quickly in the event of evacuation. Once these pets are confined, make sure all windows, building doors and pet doors are secured.

  • Keep companion animals indoors with the windows shut. Use air conditioners on recirculate and/or indoor air filter units. Check and clean all HVAC and other filters regularly.

  • Avoid exercising your pets outdoors. Allow them outside only while leashed and supervised, and only for short periods to relieve themselves.

  • Take extra care to shield pet birds from smoke exposure and poor air quality. They are particularly sensitive to smoke and the particulates in the air caused by burning materials.

Keeping a close eye on your pets

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When a wildfire occurs in your region, monitor your pets carefully. Wildfire smoke has a greater effect on older and ill animals, particularly those with heart and lung problems. If your pet exhibits signs such as frequent coughing, retching, open-mouthed breathing or gasping, asthma-like symptoms such as wheezing, profuse nasal discharge, swelling or irritation of eyes, unusual weakness, fainting or disinterest in eating or drinking, do not wait for these symptoms to pass or resolve on their own. Promptly contact a veterinary clinic, and if it is outside normal business hours, call your local 24-hour emergency clinic for advice.

Filling feeders and birdbaths can help birds fleeing from smoke and flames.
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Providing water and food can also help ground animals such as chipmunks.
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Wildlife and wildfires

Wildfires can kill wild animals as well, either from the fire itself, through smoke inhalation or through loss of habitat. Animals who are very young, old or otherwise unable to move away quickly are particularly vulnerable.

Wild animals cope with wildfires in a variety of ways. Most birds will escape easily by flying away. Mountain lions’ keen sense of smell makes them among the first animals to perceive the threat of a fire, but development and roads can block their safe escape. Other large mammals, such as elk, typically run to escape or wade into streams or lakes to wait out a passing wildfire. Small creatures such as chipmunks, ground squirrels, mice and lizards can often survive a wildfire by going into underground burrows, where temperatures can remain as low as 70 degrees. Some may hide under rocks, and, when possible, amphibians bury themselves in mud.

Here’s how you can help wildlife before and during a wildfire:

  • Clear fire buffer zones around your property. Based on the habitat and fire history, these could be 10-foot buffers to 100-foot buffers. Cut vegetation low and remove unnecessary fuel, stacked firewood, abandoned vehicles and other clutter.
  • Honor and promote fire bans during high fire-risk weather.
  • Have water reservoirs and the capability to wet down buildings and habitat when a fire is approaching.
  • Before evacuating, fill shallow containers (or stock tanks, if they have wildlife ladders in them) with water. Drinkable water can mean extended life in burnt-out areas.
  • If you already maintain bird feeders, fill them up. More birds than you imagine are aware that there is a source of food available in your yard.
Put together your disaster kit

Use our checklist to assemble an emergency kit for yourself and ALL your pets. During natural disasters, creating an emergency plan can be a lifesaver.

Meredith Lee / The HSUS