Air quality – what you need to know

By VanEastVet, on Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

Forest fire alert

With all the smoke hanging in the air (again) we thought it would be appropriate to postpone reptile talk a week or two and discuss health issues related to air quality.  Pets can suffer respiratory difficulties from poor air quality just like humans, and it is important to recognize them to provide our furry friends with relief.

What determines “air quality”?

There are many component to the air quality around us but what concerns us most from a health care perspective is particulate matter and ozone.   Particulate matter is small organic particles suspended in the air that are the product of things burning (like a couple thousand square kilometers of forest).  The smaller these particles the more harmful they are because they are more likely to penetrate indoors, penetrate our airways, and sometimes even penetrate into our tissues.  While large chunks of ash falling may be alarming, its the ultra-small particulate matter that has the most effect on air quality.  Particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers are considered most harmful (and are currently at high levels in Vancouver).  This is because they are small enough penetrate into our lower airways and irritate the lining of our alveoli, increasing inflammation, mucus secretion, and gumming up our ciliary elevator.  This inflammation is the reason many of us are feeling a scratchy or sore throat on smoky days.

Alveloi, the gas exchange unit of the lungs

Ozone is produced at ground level when certain pollutants and volatile organic compounds react in the presence of sunlight.  Unfortunately there is plenty of both in forest fire smoke as it causes lower airway constriction, exacerbating things like asthma and bronchitis and leading to coughing, sore throats and difficulty breathing.

How this affects cats and dogs

Poor air quality can exacerbate existing health conditions as well as cause a generalized mild cough in our pet species.   The most common chronic respiratory  issue we see in cats is asthma.  People often come to us saying that their cat is “retching” or “vomiting but not bringing anything up”, which if you think about it, is an oxymoron, but it is really difficult to tell  when a cat is coughing and having an asthma attack and when a cat is trying to vomit.  The most obvious distinction comes from an extended neck and no abdominal effort when the cat is having an asthma attack as opposed to a big belly heave when vomiting.   Here’s two really useful videos that we show our clients illustrating an asthma attack in a cat here and here.  If you cat is doing this, please bring them to the vet!  it is distressing to them and increases their chance of developing a nasty pneumonia or other complications, particularly when the air quality is poor.

In dogs we see a number of common respiratory issues.  Collapsing trachea is very common in small breed dogs. A video of a dog coughing from this condition can be found here.  While dogs can live a normal life with this abnormality, poor air quality can exacerbate it and lead to bronchitis, pneumonia, or collapse in affected dogs.   Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disease (COPD) is also seen in dogs, although it is more commonly diagnosed in horses, and is characterized by a chronic cough and breathing difficulties.  Of course, short faced dogs always have trouble breathing and we must be careful not to exercise them at all when the air quality is poor since they are more likely to overheat or develop respiratory problems  when their airways become inflamed.

Finally, heart disease is quite common in dogs, and any respiratory inflammation can push a cardiac patient into congestive heart failure, or even cause sudden death.  We see dogs who have heart disease but are asymptomatic brought in with heart failure during periods of very hot weather or poor air quality, and 24 hours can make a huge difference to how easy it is to stabilize one of these patients.  If your dog has heart disease and is on medication, you’ll want to monitor them very closely and call your veterinarian at the first sign of something changing, even if it seems minor. A timely dose adjustment can make the difference between normal life and a crisis.


The important thing to recognize is that with all of the problems listed above are manageable.   Most homes in Vancouver are not equipped to manage air quality as ultra-fine particles will get in even if windows are closed and most air filters are not powerful enough to properly clean the air (and ozone based air filters are not only ineffective at air cleaning but also harmful since ozone isn’t something you want to be breathing in the first place).  Therefore we have to focus on managing the complications of poor air quality as they arise.  As veterinarians, our primary task is to improve the quality of life for our patients but we can only do so if the owners are willing to bring their pet to us and let us do our job.   It is also important to recognize that the sooner we see a pet, the better the outcome is going to be.  Treating a problem when it first emerges is likely to be much more successful and cheaper than trying to fix an issue that is advanced and been going on for days or weeks.  If your pet has one of the conditions described above or seems to be coughing/retching, short of breath, reluctant to exercise, or otherwise acting abnormal during a period of poor air quality there is good reason to suspect something substantial is going.