UC Davis is studying cats to learn more about the health risks of wildfire smoke

The immediate short-term health risks of wildfire smoke are well understood by medical experts. At the same time, there is still much to be studied about potential long-term health problems resulting from repeated exposure to smoke. Researchers at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine may have found one way to gain some insight by looking at how wildfires affect the health of cats. Dr. Ronald Lee is an associate professor of small animal emergency and emergency medicine at UC Davis. He and his team began studying wildfire-injured cats in 2017. “Back in 2017, our school started seeing a lot of cats rescued from the Tubbs fire in 2017, and at that time we collaborated with our team in cardiology, and we started to see a fraction of these cats that were experiencing congestive heart failure,” Li said. These common symptoms led the UC Davis team to look for a potential cause. They found that many cats showed signs of heart swelling, known medically as cardiomyopathy. “But what’s surprising is that we found a lot of blood clots,” Li said. Li said that these blood clots that developed in the cats’ hearts were the result of overactive platelets, cells that produce clots in damaged blood vessels. They confirmed these findings with more injured cats that came in after the fire in 2018. But there is good news for these cats, Li said. Their heart conditions can be treated, even reversed, with a simple aspirin regimen. But if left untreated, this smoke-induced clotting can quickly become fatal. Li said this should be a reminder to cat owners to have their animals evaluated by a veterinarian if they have been exposed to heavy smoke. Because cats are often close companions to humans, observing their illnesses after wildfires can help provide some insight into the potential risks to humans. “Animals and humans are exposed to the same environment,” Li said. “I think it raises the alarm about cardiovascular emergencies going up dramatically, respiratory illnesses going up dramatically during wildfire seasons.

The immediate short-term health risks of wildfire smoke are well understood by medical experts.

At the same time, there is still much to be studied regarding potential long-term health problems resulting from repeated exposure to smoke. Researchers at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine may have found one way to gain some insight by looking at how wildfires affect the health of cats.

Dr. Ronald Lee is an associate professor of small animal emergency and emergency medicine at UC Davis. He and his team began studying cats with wildfire injuries in 2017.

“Back in 2017, our school started seeing a lot of cats rescued from the Tubbs fire in 2017 and at that time we collaborated with our cardiology team and started noticing that some of these cats were experiencing congestive heart failure,” Lee said.

These common symptoms led the UC Davis team to look for a potential cause. They found that many cats showed signs of heart swelling, known medically as cardiomyopathy.

“But what’s surprising is that we found a lot of blood clots,” Li said.

Li said that these blood clots that developed in the cats’ hearts were the result of overactive platelets, cells that produce clots in damaged blood vessels. They confirmed these findings with more injured cats that came in after the 2018 fire.

But there is good news for these cats, Li said. Their heart conditions can be treated, even reversed, with a simple aspirin regimen.

But if left untreated, this smoke-induced clotting can quickly become fatal. Li said this should be a reminder to cat owners to have their animals evaluated by a veterinarian if they have been exposed to heavy smoke. Because cats are often close companions to humans, monitoring their illnesses after wildfires can help provide some insight into the potential risks to humans.

“Animals and humans are exposed to the same environment,” Li said. “I think that raises the alarm about a dramatic increase in cardiovascular emergencies, a dramatic increase in respiratory illnesses during wildfire seasons.”

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