Many pet owners are watching the smoky skies all over Western Canada and wondering just how worried they should be about their furry companions. 

Dogs, in particular, need outdoor exercise, and many cats live outdoors. The fires have disrupted routines as pet owners try to stay indoors. And just like for humans, the smoke is particularly difficult for vulnerable dogs with underlying health conditions related to their heart and lungs.

“Our animals are so close to us now, they’re obviously a part of the family. And so we worry: what can we do to protect them?” said Beth Barrett, a veterinarian who runs a clinic just outside of Calgary.

Beth Barrett is a veterinarian who runs a clinic just outside Calgary. She recommends training exercises to keep dogs engaged while stuck indoors.
Beth Barrett is a veterinarian who runs a clinic just outside Calgary. She recommends training exercises to keep dogs engaged while stuck indoors. (Submitted by Beth Barrett.)

With climate change promising to make such weather events more common, what can you do to protect your furry family members? CBC spoke to veterinarians for some guidelines.

Should Fido stay indoors?

The main line of defence against the poor air quality is staying indoors — as much as possible, according to Daniel Joffe, vice-president of medical operations at VCA Canada, a network of animal hospitals. Joffe works as a veterinarian at one of VCA’s hospitals in Calgary, which has faced particularly bad air quality in the past week.

“​​Dogs just like people and have lower airway disease, asthma-like disease, that can be triggered by the smoke and potentially in the worst case scenario could end up with a very severe or fatal outcome,” Joffe warned. 

“And so really they need to err on the side of safety.”

Joffe recommends looking at the Air Quality Health Index for your area — and taking the same steps you would take for protecting humans. In Calgary on Wednesday, the index reached 10+, which is the highest level. With such poor air, Joffe recommends letting a dog out for not more than five to 10 minutes, even for dogs who usually spend a lot of time exercising outside, because of the significant health risks involved.

At an index below seven, Joffe suggested dogs could be out a little longer — 15 to 20 minutes. On Friday, the index for Calgary was at five — and Joffe suggests about half an hour would be okay for dogs at that level.

“But my rule of thumb is that if the if the smoke is starting to bother you, it’s bothering your pet. And we should take them inside.”

As air quality due to wildfire smoke remains poor in parts of Western Canada, health experts are advising people to stay inside as much as possible.
As air quality due to wildfire smoke remains poor in parts of Western Canada, health experts are advising people to stay inside as much as possible. (Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press)

But if you’re looking at your high-energy husky and wondering how you could keep them indoors all day, you’re not alone. Barrett’s veterinary practice also operates an indoor dog sport facility. Indoor areas like these can provide off-leash spaces for dogs to burn off energy and get training — away from the smoke outside.

“We’ve sure noticed that more people are using the indoor facility right now, just because they’re trying to avoid being outside when the air is so poor,” said Beth Barrett.

“Tired dogs are good dogs so getting exercise is super important for the mental health of the dog and physical health as well.”

WATCH | Wildfire smoke is affecting air quality. What health precautions should you take? 

Wildfire smoke is affecting air quality. What health precautions should you take?

A doctor explains how to deal with the smoke coming from wildfires burning across Western Canada.

For those who can’t get to a doggy daycare or sports facility, Barrett suggests an underrated activity for the home: training exercises. Obedience or scent-training will stimulate a dog mentally and keep them from getting bored.

“It’s amazing how tired they get after a training session,” Barrett said. “Even just doing basic obedience, they often want to have a big rest afterwards.”

As for cats who live outdoors, Joffe has a clear message — if they’re outdoor cats, this would be a good time to bring them inside and or keep them indoors for longer periods of time.

Balancing safety and exercise

Cody Shearer, owner of Calgary dog-walking business Pooched YYC, said he’s been taking steps to keep the animals he cares for safe from the smoke. 

“The biggest thing is making sure that we’re basically limiting how much exercise they’re getting,” he said. Shearer monitors the air quality index in Calgary — when it’s above an 8, he cancels walks for the day. 

For Shearer, scrapping walks means less income — he said he loses roughly 40 per cent of his usual revenue on days when it’s especially smoky. But keeping the pets in his care safe remains his top priority. 

“Cancelling the walks is more important than the money for us,” he said.

WATCH | Wildfire smoke impacting life across Western Canada: 

Wildfire smoke impacting life across Western Canada

Air quality is deteriorating in parts of Canada as wildfires continue to rage. Western provinces are facing the worst health risks, but the smoke is travelling and now covers much of the country.

Like Barrett suggests, Shearer finds ways to keep his animals occupied even when the air quality is poor. He runs basic training activities with his dogs to “exercise their brain instead of their bodies.” 

Pet owners can hide treats around their house, set up small agility courses and work on new tricks with their pets to keep them entertained while indoors.

“So it’s the responsibility of us — the dog owners or dog professionals — to put things in place so they’re not working too hard under those conditions because that’s when you can start getting some irritation,” said Shearer.

Which dogs are especially at risk?

Joffe said brachycephalic dogs — dogs with pushed-in noses like bulldogs or pugs — are particularly at risk for respiratory tract disease. And it’s a double whammy for them. Wildfires generally happen during warm weather months, when such dogs already struggle with hotter temperatures.

But other breeds are also vulnerable, especially those that like strenuous activity like running around outside. Barrett also warned that overweight dogs are more susceptible to many health problems, including from smoky air.

WATCH | Why wildfire seasons are getting stronger and longer: 

Why wildfire seasons are getting stronger and longer

John Vaillant has spent years investigating wildfires and the reasons today’s fires are more destructive. He uses photos and videos to show CBC’s chief correspondent Adrienne Arsenault what’s been happening.

Are dog masks an option?

Masks don’t really seem to be an option for dogs. That’s because their face shapes make it hard for a mask to stay on. More importantly, dogs don’t really know how to breathe properly through the masks.

“So it could actually make things worse,” Joffe said. 

Evacuating with your pets in mind

If you’re in close proximity to a fire and preparing for a potential evacuation, Dan Kobe, a spokesperson for the Alberta Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, suggests making a few considerations for your pets. 

“First and foremost, you want to take enough supplies for your pet for three to seven days,” he said. “When it comes to medications, try to have a two-week supply.”

Kobe notes that one thing commonly overlooked during hectic evacuations is veterinary records — vet clinics unfamiliar with your pet will need to see your animal’s medical records and proof of vaccinations, he explains. 

“It’s not something that would seem critical at the moment, but if you have to take your animal to a vet while they’re away from home, you’re going to need their records.”

Making sure there is a way to identify your animal — either through microchip, tattoo or clear images that highlight their discernible features — is also wise in case you and your pet end up separated, Kobe said. 

WATCH | Western Canada wildfires push people, resources to the limit: 

Western Canada wildfires push people, resources to the limit

Hundreds of firefighters from across Canada are helping to combat Alberta’s raging wildfires, just as B.C.’s worsening wildfire situation starts siphoning resources.

It’s not always possible to bring an animal along while evacuating, he added, but there are actions that can be taken to help them while you’re away. 

Kobe stresses that it’s important to leave excess food and water for your furry friend before evacuation so they can eat and drink even in your absence.

“Fill up the bathtub so that they have a week’s supply of water there,” he said. “Overfeed them — spread it out on the kitchen floor so that they can graze when they need to eat.”

Depending on the state of the wildfires, emergency crews may be able to enter your home and check on your animal’s food and water supplies while evacuation orders are in place.


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