Bushfires can lead to persistent smoke and related air pollution and this can cause serious negative effects and health problems for animals, just as it can in people. However, there are measures you can take to minimise these impacts.
The effects of bushfire smoke and pollution on animals
The smoke and pollution from bushfires can contain a mixture of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, soot, and other organic substances and pollutants like dust; all of which can be harmful . The potential adverse health effects are well documented in humans and people with respiratory conditions and some cardiovascular illnesses are particularly at risk . The lungs of mammals are very similar and so, just like humans, companion animals (such as dogs, cats, horses, small mammals), farm animals and wildlife can be harmed by smoke and pollution from bushfires . Other non-mammalian animals are also at risk; birds are extremely vulnerable to respiratory damage from smoke and pollutants in the air .
Exposure to high levels of smoke and pollution from bushfires can cause inflammation, increase coagulation of the blood, and impair respiratory and cardiovascular function . Air containing smoke and pollutants enters the body through the respiratory system (nose, throat, trachea, bronchi and further into the lungs) which can cause narrowing of the airways and excessive mucus secretion, which can make breathing difficult.
Exposure to bushfire smoke and pollution can cause irritation of the eyes, nose or throat in healthy individual animals. Animals with respiratory conditions (e.g. asthma, bronchitis) or cardiovascular disease (e.g. heart failure) are particularly at risk of severe breathing difficulty or other serious problems . Such animals should be monitored very carefully and extra precautions taken to reduce their exposure to smoke.
Signs to watch out for include :
- Increased breathing rate and/or difficulty breathing (for example, open mouth breathing and increased noise when breathing)
- Coughing or gagging
- Eye irritation and excessive watering
- Nasal discharge
- Weakness and/or wobbliness
- Reduced appetite or thirst
You should contact your veterinarian promptly if your animals are experiencing any of these signs. Remember that animals who cannot be sheltered indoors such as farm animals or horses can also be affected. The same signs listed above indicate problems requiring veterinary assistance in those species too.
Minimising impacts of bushfire smoke and pollution on animals
Advice notices are often issued by authorities when there is a health risk from bushfire smoke and pollution, often cautioning people to remain indoors as much as possible and to avoid heavy work or exercise outdoors. In these circumstances, or when you can see or feel the effects of smoke yourself, you should take precautions to protect your companion and farm animals too .
When air quality is poor, the most effective measure to limit exposure to smoke and pollution is to stay inside. So, if possible, bring your animals inside your house. Doors and windows should closed before a smoke event and kept closed, otherwise smoke and pollutants will enter thereby creating health risks .
Birds are particularly vulnerable to the ill-effects of bushfire smoke or pollution and pet birds should be kept indoors with windows and doors shut to protect them, they should not be allowed outside .
Avoid exercising animals
Animals should not be exercised outdoors when air quality is poor. If you must take your dog or cat outside to toilet, then this should be done at a time when smoke, dust and pollution is reduced as much as possible and the time outdoors and exercise should be limited to the minimum possible. People should avoid exercising their horses when there is bushfire smoke or pollution in the air . Event organisers and sporting clubs are also encouraged to cancel or postpone events including horse racing, greyhound racing, rodeos and equestrian events (e.g. endurance and eventing).
- Provide plenty of clean fresh water for all your animals, close to where they are eating and resting  (so that they do not have to move far to get to it).
- Always have a disaster preparedness plan that includes your animals and have an evacuation kit ready .
- For farm animals and horses, try to limit their additional exposure to dust by making sure they are fed only low-dust or dust-free feeds. If their living or holding area is dry and dusty then sprinkling or misting the area with water can reduce the dust entering the air and the animals’ lungs .
- It is important to give animals time to recover from exposure to bushfire smoke and pollution before they do any strenuous exercise or are stressed in any way (this can include being transported/handled). Therefore, where possible, exercise, transport and handling of horses and farm animals should be avoided or limited for 4-6 weeks after the air quality has returned to normal . If a horse is exercised prematurely and/or too strenuously, this could exacerbate any damage that has been done (particularly to their respiratory system). This can impede healing and may compromise the horse’s performance for weeks or months .
- Pasture and feed can be contaminated with pollutants from bushfires and bushfire fighting activities . Therefore, where possible, try to avoid feed that may have been contaminated.
Although you may not be able to protect wildlife in the same way as you can your own animals, you are still able to take action to help. For example, you should leave fresh clean water out for wildlife (making sure that the water container is shallow and that you have a stone or stick/branch in there that small animals and insects can use to get out of the water if they fall in).
If you have a pool ensure that you have created an exit for wildlife who might fall in, such as something draped over the side (e.g. a rope) that they could use to hold on to and climb out. Keep an eye out for any wild animals who are in trouble, injured or ill and, if safe to do so, help them by taking them to a veterinarian or wildlife carer or calling your local rescue organisation. For more information and for advice you can contact your local reputable wildlife welfare and care organisation and support them in any way you can.
 Hamid AA et al (2010) Environmental and health risk of bush burning. Advances in Environmental Biology, 4(2): 2411-249.
 Lyth A et al (2018) Place, human agency and community resilience – considerations for public health management of smoke from prescribed burning. Local Environment, 23(10): 975–990.
 American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) (n.d.) Wildfire smoke and animals.
 Rossiello M, Szema A (2019) Health Effects of Climate Change-induced Wildfires and Heatwaves. Cureus, 11(5): e4771. doi:10.7759/cureus.4771