Veterinarians talk dog and cat safety with Philly's air quality


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Jun 10, 2023

Veterinarians talk dog and cat safety with Philly's air quality

Erin Labar runs a dog-walking and pet-sitting service where, on any given day,

Erin Labar runs a dog-walking and pet-sitting service where, on any given day, she takes dozens of dogs out across Northwest Philly.

But this week, Labar says, the city's poor air quality is making her job significantly harder — and less safe.

Smoke from Canadian wildfires lingered over Philly skies Wednesday, prompting the city to issue an air quality alert.

"We have about 20 appointments today, and it's definitely been one of the stranger days I have worked as a dog walker," Labar said. "Visibility has actually gotten worse. It's giving super-eerie vibes."

» READ MORE: Our live blog on Philly's air quality

Labar said the poor air quality prompted her business, Pawsitive Vibes Only, to send its first-ever weather alert since launching two years ago.

"We shortened walks today," she said.

Labar and her husband — also her business partner — are both wearing masks on walks this week. But Labar's husband, who is severely asthmatic, ended his shift early as a safety precaution.

"I have been in touch with a lot of my other pet-care friends today," Labar said. "We’re sending each other pics of different areas. Everyone is kind of freaking out."

Veterinary experts say air quality is a serious matter when it comes to a pet's health.

Katie Krebs, an assistant professor of primary care at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, said when she worries about air quality for herself, she worries even more about her pets.

"Our dogs and cats have more sensitive noses than we do," she said. "For a dog or cat with a nose hundreds of times more sensitive, I worry about how that can affect their breathing."

Experts say smoke in the air can irritate pets’ eyes and respiratory tracts. Krebs said to watch for whether a pet has difficulty breathing.

"If you notice your pet is breathing with more rapid or shallow breaths, that's a concern," she said. "I also worry about cats already diagnosed with asthma and brachycephalic — or smushed face — dogs that already have difficulty breathing."

Vets emphasized dog owners should avoid high-intensity outdoor activities, like the dog park or runs. Leashed walks and bathroom breaks should be kept short until air quality improves. Windows and doors leading outside should be kept shut as much as possible.

Throughout Philadelphia, pet owners told The Inquirer they’re relying on indoor activities, air purifiers, and — in some cases — pee pads to keep their fur babies safe.

"We’re limiting our time outside, cutting walk time significantly, and trying to only go out like twice a day," Maureen Brown said about her game plan for Lola, a black Labrador/pit bull mix. "Otherwise we have indoor pee pads. Lola refuses to go out for walks in the rain anyway, so we just keep saying, ‘It's raining.’"

Krebs said pee pads work, especially for at-risk dogs like pugs and French bulldogs.

"If they’re trained and comfy using pee pads — especially animals predisposed to respiratory issues — I think that's a good option," she said. "But if it's going to stress them out even more, just limit that outside time."

Rachel O’Brien said her two long-haired miniature dachshunds — Finnegan, 2, and Theodore, 4 months — are going on quick potty breaks and are otherwise staying inside.

"I usually take them for walks a few times a week but this week was a strict no-go because they already have mild seasonal allergies which have seemed to have gotten worse this week," she said.

According to Krebs, pet owners can also wipe paws and brush coats when pets come in.

"If you see ash and things floating in the air, you should worry about them tracking that into the house," she said.

Krebs added that air filters and purifiers are also a good option, but says pet owners shouldn't stress over things out of their control.

"Everyone's doing the best they can," she said.

Any time spent outdoors can exacerbate lung conditions or cause problems breathing, Krebs said. For that reason, pet owners whose dogs are predisposed to health issues say they’re playing it extra safe.

Grace Gosnear's dog Hoss, a Brittany, has undersized lungs, so, "we’re not risking it," she says.

"Our exercise time has been tug-of-war back and forth across the apartment with his rope toy and him playing with his lick mat," Gosnear said. "He's been hanging out in my room most of today with our air purifier on high with the windows shut."

Victoria Persampiere said she's also proceeding cautiously since her dog, Moose, a Doberman — is a breed that can be prone to cardiac issues.

"He normally loves to run, but we’re not going to be going running until this is better," she said. "I’m genuinely worried this air quality isn't safe for him." Moose will also be skipping his weekly appearance at Bark Social on Wednesday evenings in Manayunk.

Veterinarians say pet cats and birds should also be kept indoors.

Stephanie Hucke said her cat has a small enclosed outdoor area where he can go hang out, but he hasn't wanted anything to do with it since the air got smoky.

"He only went out for a few minutes and came right back in," she said.

Local cat owner Melissa Meier said she's keeping her cats inside, too.

"And we have the ACs going and a HEPA filter," she said. "But they’re more lethargic than normal. I think they know something is up."

Nearly all the pet owners who spoke with The Inquirer mentioned their pets don't want to linger outside.

"It's interesting because my dogs, Labradors, usually love to be out and don't want to come back in," said Sierra Davis. "But since the smoke and haze started, they go out to use the bathroom and then ask to come right back in."

Krebs said she's noticed the same with her own dogs.

If pets seem to be reacting to the air quality, she said, they probably are.

"They’re also more sensitive to things in the air than we are." She said, "If you can smell smoke, your pets can absolutely smell it. And even if you aren't smelling smoke, they probably are."