Drought, fire create air issues for animals


A cow wakes up outside of Windham Friday morning as smoke obscures the Little Belt Mountains.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

As the Northwest continues to burn, and drought continues its path across Montana, air quality is going down. That includes the air in Central Montana, and the region’s residents are feeling the effects, right down to the four-legged ones.

Over the last week, Central Montana’s air quality has diminished as a high-pressure ridge has trapped smoke on the ground. The Department of Public Health and Human Services has recommended residents minimize exposure, but Assistant State Veterinarian Tahnee Szymanski pointed out livestock don’t have that choice.

“The effects of smoke on livestock would be similar to those on people,” she said. “The caveat for [the livestock] is they can’t get out of it.”

Constant exposure creates several symptoms, but Szymanski said runny noses and watery eyes are the easiest to spot.

Local veterinarian Greg Carlson, owner of Horizon Vet, said the chance of symptoms increases with smoke. His biggest concern, though, was the cumulative effects of smoke, heat and dust from drought-dried land.

“I would urge cattlemen to be extra cautious,” he said. “We’re at the point in the year where they’re bringing the cow herds back in.”

Carlson explained individually each stressor was manageable,  but combined with preconditioning, the summer stressors could take a toll. Preconditioning is the process ranchers use to prepare animals for shipping. This is includes vaccinations to protect cattle from disease.

The vaccinations are harsh, according to Carlson, but livestock can normally handle them. Outside stressors, such as heat and respiratory inflammation, can weaken the animals’ immune systems, though. To avoid health issues, Carlson recommended reducing the stressors as much as possible.

“If they’re vaccinating in an actual corral, take the time to water that corral down to knock the dust down,” he said. “Do it at the cool points of the day.”

Small animals don’t do well with smoke either, according to Carlson.

“As with most things, it’s really going to hit the geriatric population and the really young population,” he said.

Carlson sees mature adults, from dogs to cats, compensate well. Older animals have a harder time.

“You have bodies that are less pliable,” he said. “In the older population that has kidney problems, liver problems, stuff like that, all of those things compound and are exacerbated.”

Carlson said all ages of pets could experience issues, and those issues will center around the eyes, ears and respiratory tract, from nose to lungs. Pets may get watery eyes, runny noses, labored breathing and even coughs. Carlson singles out two particular symptoms to his clients.

“Lethargy and lack of appetite,” he said. “Those are the two big things.”

While smoke can irritate, it doesn’t take away the motivation to play, eat and drink. Carlson said “mopey” is a good description, and this behavior means a stress-compromised immune system has fallen to something else, such as an infection.

“The smoke is going to be the source of the irritation, but it’s not going to be the source of the lethargy,” he said. “When they’re not interested in food or water, those are two very basic components of an animal’s life, those are paramount.”

Carlson best advice on protecting pets is to minimize their exposure.

“If you have an older, geriatric animal, or you have a feline cat with feline asthma, indoor air conditioning is about the best you can do.”



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