With summer on the horizon, the threat of bushfire grows daily. The radiant heat from a bushfire represents a huge threat to life and property. They occur mostly in summers, often starting with little or no warning, and are capable of wreaking major destruction in very short periods of time.
As is the case with all natural disasters, the best way to protect your pet, and yourself, from the risks is to plan ahead and be prepared. Start with a bushfire plan. Where should your pets be on the days of greatest risk? Would they be safer with you? Or moved somewhere else? Obviously the safest place for everyone is away from the bushfire area.
If you intend to move them have a list of safe places you could take them in an emergency. Relocate them early, and also have a plan of what to do if a bushfire emergency occurs while you’re away from home. Make a plan with your neighbours and keep in touch with them during the danger. (Click through for details of bushfire Safer Places – Note that you should check well ahead of needing to relocate whether pets are allowed to accompany you at these venues.)
If you decide that they will stay with you then they should be confined early. Move them to a secure room and use leads or carriers to ensure they don’t escape. Be careful to allow enough time as moving them may take longer than you think, especially under emergency conditions.
Make sure that you have a stock of woollen blankets and wet cloths or towels to protect them. As with any natural disaster, whether it’s flood or fire, ensure that you have plentiful quantities of fresh drinking water. Dehydration is subtle, silent and potentially deadly. As well as assisting with hydration, water will help to ease any irritation in the mouth or throat caused by hot dry air and smoke. If available, use ice cubes to cool the water. Other things to include are bedding, food and bowls, as well as any medications. Keep details of your pets’ medical history and contacts details for their vet in case they’re left in the care of someone else.
Microchipping will ensure that your pet is identifiable in case you are separated from them. Collars and identification tags are also helpful. Be sure that the microchip is registered to a database and that all contact details are up to date.
Another major risk to be aware of on very hot days, or in bushfire areas, is heat stress/stroke. The thick fur coats of dogs and cats can make it more difficult for them to control their temperatures in the heat. It’s important to be wary of the signs and know what to do. Unusually heavy panting/breathing is often a sure sign that your pet is feeling the heat. Unlike us, dogs and cats don’t sweat much, and so rely on other means such as this to get rid of heat. Other signs that your pet could be suffering are drooling, rapid heart rate, unsteadiness on feet, vomiting, diarrhoea, and in severe cases can lead to coma and death.
If you suspect that your pet is suffering heat stress/stroke cool them immediately by draping a cool wet towel over them or immersing them in a cool bath. Maintain airflow over their body with a fan or air conditioner, and get them drinking water. It is important to always contact your veterinarian however, as first aid is no substitute for proper medical care.
In addition to heat stress and dehydration, exposure to hot air and smoke can also damage airways and make breathing difficult. Signs to watch for are coughing and wheezing. Reduce the risk by moving your pet away from smoky environments if possible. Burns to the skin can be quite distressing and painful. Apply cool running water and seek assistance. Again, if concerned, contact you veterinarian for assistance/advice.
After the danger has passed check your pets for injuries and keep them indoors until you know that the surrounding areas are safe. Animals rely heavily on their sense of smell and familiar areas may smell different to them. This can cause confusion and potential changes to behaviour. Keep a close watch on them for the next few days and if you have any concerns take them to a vet promptly. Take extra care with dangerous materials and hazards that have been created by the fires such as sharp objects and embers. Do not handle live wires, contact a professional to do so. Be mindful of the contamination risks to water.
Bushfires aren’t just a threat to people and pets. Livestock and wildlife are at significant, if not greater risk of injury. Never put your own life at risk when assisting a wild animal. Do not assist venomous or aggressive animals, contact a professional. If you find injured or orphaned wildlife contact an organisation such as Fauna Rescue, WIRES, or us for advice. For more information about the care of horses and livestock in bushfires refer to South Australian Country Fire Service’s website.