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The Pet Owner’s Guide to Air Quality and Pet Health

Though air quality can have a great impact on human health, many pet owners do not realize the significant role it plays in animal health. The surrounding air impacts your pet with every breath they take, either providing them with the air they need to live or negatively impacting their health and wellbeing. It’s your responsibility as a pet owner to learn about the link between air quality and pet health. That way, you can protect your pet from unhealthy air and help them thrive for as long as possible.

How Air Quality Impacts Pet Health

Harsh pollutants have contaminated outdoor air, but indoor air can be just as unhealthy for your pet. Depending on the source, indoor air pollution could be even more dangerous. Specific health impacts can vary from species to species, and even animal to animal:

Birds

Birds are extremely vulnerable to air pollution. In addition to breathing at a faster rate than humans, their respiratory systems are smaller and more efficient, allowing them to take in and expel more air with each breath.

A literature review studying the impact of air pollutant exposure on wild birds discovered that they can experience a variety of negative health outcomes, including:

  • Respiratory distress;
  • Respiratory illness;
  • Increased stress;
  • Decreased immune response;
  • And behavioral changes.

Significant or long-term exposure to polluted air could result in lung damage, cancer, or even death.

Be on the lookout for these symptoms in your bird, as they may be signs of exposure to pollution:

  • Change in voice;
  • Eye irritation;
  • Sneezing or coughing;
  • Nasal discharge;
  • Changes in behavior;
  • Sitting or appearing ruffled;
  • Change in weight;
  • Keeping the eyes shut;
  • Changes in eating or droppings;
  • Repeated or regular head-scratching;
  • Labored breathing, which is often accompanied by a bob of the tail.

Keep in mind that different bird species will be affected by air pollution in different ways. Be sure to familiarize yourself with your bird’s unique health needs, including signs of respiratory issues or distress.

Cats

Poor air can also harm your cats’ health. Cats are prone to respiratory illnesses, particularly when they are young and their respiratory systems are still developing.

It’s thought that air pollution can make cats more susceptible to contracting respiratory illnesses, or worsen existing conditions. One study determined that cats are more likely to have a respiratory disease of some kind if they are exposed to higher levels of air pollution in their homes. When left unchecked, respiratory illnesses can have serious, potentially lethal, health consequences.

There are several warning signs that your cat may be experiencing respiratory distress:

  • Coughing and sneezing;
  • Nasal discharge;
  • Congestion or runny nose;
  • Eye irritation or discharge;
  • Change in voice;
  • Lethargy or decrease in energy;
  • Nasal or oral ulcers;
  • Labored breathing.

In addition to pollution, viruses and bacteria can also trigger respiratory illness in cats. Be sure to take your cat to the vet if they exhibit any of these symptoms to determine the root cause and get the proper treatment.

Dogs

Similarly, a growing body of research has discovered the various ways dogs can be affected by air pollution. Like cats, low-quality indoor air can worsen existing or naturally occurring “airway disease” in dogs. Further, outdoor air pollution has also been linked to cognitive abnormalities in dogs.

Watch out for the following symptoms of respiratory distress in your dog:

  • Coughing or gagging;
  • Sneezing or wheezing;
  • Labored breathing or panting;
  • Open-mouth breathing, particularly when your dog is cool or hasn’t exercised;
  • Nasal congestion or discharge;
  • Eye irritation;
  • Lethargy or decrease in energy.

Always follow up with your vet if you notice these symptoms in your dog, especially if they persist for several days or occur after exposure to pollution. You should be even more mindful if your dog is brachycephalic or if they have existing respiratory issues, as this puts them at further risk of serious or severe reactions to poor air quality.

Horses

Air pollution also poses a major threat to the health of horses. Horses take a single breath for every stride; if the air quality is poor, you can count the number of polluted breaths they take. Further, even if your horse is housed in a barn, they likely spend a significant amount of time outside, increasing their exposure.

Short-term exposure can result in mild asthma-like symptoms. However, the consequences can be more severe the longer horses are exposed. Equine specialists from the U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine note that pollution can reduce horses’ ability to filter out debris and particulate in the respiratory tract. Additionally, air pollution may worsen existing cardiac or respiratory illnesses, including serious conditions like heart failure and emphysema.

Here are some of the most common and apparent signs of negative health effects due to air pollution:

  • Eye irritation;
  • Respiratory irritation;
  • Sneezing and coughing;
  • Nasal discharge;
  • Flared nostrils;
  • Labored breathing;
  • Noise or grunting while breathing.

To keep them healthy, it’s always best to eliminate or limit your horse’s exposure to low-quality air. If your horse displays any of the above symptoms, they should be seen by your vet.

Common Air Pollutants That Affect Pets

Much like humans, indoor and outdoor air pollutants can threaten your pet’s health. Some are more dangerous than others, but each pollutant can put your pet’s health at risk.

Indoor Pollutants

Indoor pollutants can either be found primarily inside your home or only become dangerous once they enter your house. Some of the most common indoor air pollutants include:

  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): VOCs are chemicals that are found in myriad household products, including cleaning products, paint, aerosol sprays, and hobby and craft supplies. As these products are used, they release VOCs into the air. When inhaled, VOCs can have both short- and long-term health consequences for humans and animals alike.
  • Asbestos: Asbestos refers to a group of soft, heat-resistant minerals that are commonly used in housing materials, including insulation, ceiling tiles, flooring, and textured paint. It is particularly common in older homes, but can still be found in some products today. In and of itself, asbestos is relatively safe to be around, but it becomes toxic and dangerous when disturbed. Asbestos can cause a deadly form of cancer known as mesothelioma in humans as well as in dogs.
  • Air Fresheners, Candles, Essential Oils, and Incense: Scented aromatic products, including air fresheners, essential oils, incense, and candles, are another significant source of air pollution. Even “safe” alternatives, such as essential oil diffusers, can still threaten your pets’ health. Artificially-scented products may contain irritating chemicals, while natural products can still be toxic. Many essential oils are particularly dangerous for cats, though dogs, birds, and other animals may still find them irritating. Additionally, the smoke that comes from burning candles or incense is another source of pollution, on top of any toxins in the product itself.
  • Biological Pollutants: Natural microbes — including dust, bacteria, mold, mildew, and pet dander — can also pollute indoor air. No matter how clean your home is, it’s impossible to avoid these microbes entirely. However, when they have the opportunity to build up, these particles can trigger allergies in humans and pets. Pets may experience skin irritation as well as respiratory issues. Certain biological pollutants can cause more severe health problems if left unchecked.
  • Radon: Radon is a clear, odorless, radioactive natural gas that is found in the atmosphere. Outdoors, it is relatively harmless, but if it seeps indoors through cracks or holes in your home, it can accumulate to dangerous levels. Over time, it can cause cancer in humans and animals (specifically in cats and dogs).
  • Carbon Monoxide: Carbon monoxide is also a colorless, odorless gas that, with heavy or long-term exposure, is dangerous and potentially lethal to humans and animals. Cars, fireplaces, gas stoves, and furnaces are major sources of carbon monoxide pollution in the home. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning in humans and animals are fairly similar, with lethargy, confusion, and weakness being some of the most common, early signs.

Though you can control your home environment, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to completely escape all of these pollutants. However, it’s always best to limit your pet’s exposure as much as possible.

Outdoor Pollutants

Outdoor pollutants mainly affect your pet when you’re outside, though they can still be harmful if they get into your home. Common sources of outdoor air pollution include:

  • Particulate Matter: Particulate matter is a mix of solid and liquid particles in the air. Dust, smoke, and dirt are all forms of particulate matter that can be seen with the naked eye, though it can also be microscopically small. Particulate matter is one of the most dangerous pollutants to humans and animals, as it is small enough to be inhaled directly into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. In addition to causing respiratory and cardiovascular disease, both short- and long-term exposure to particulate matter can be deadly.
  • Ozone: Ozone is a gas that is produced by a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides and VOCs in sunlight. Ozone in the stratosphere helps block radiation from the sun, but when it is low and close to the ground, it forms smog, which is highly harmful. When inhaled by humans, it can chemically react with lung tissue. Researchers have found that certain animals and humans experience similar health issues when exposed to ozone. It can cause respiratory issues, make you more prone to infection, and lead to premature death. Burning fossil fuels, such as in cars and industrial plants, produces ozone.
  • Nitrogen Oxides: Nitrogen oxides are reactive gases (most notably, nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide) that contribute to outdoor air pollution. It can take the form of particulate matter and is a key element in the creation of ozone. Like ozone, it is toxic to humans and animals. It is also created by the burning of fossil fuels.
  • Sulfur Oxides: Sulfur oxides are another group of reactive gases that are common air pollutants. Like nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides can be gas or take the form of particulate matter. In large quantities, it can form smog. While volcanoes are a natural source of sulfur oxides, it is primarily produced by burning fuel that contains sulfur, including gas, oil, coal, and diesel fuel. It’s thought that sulfur oxides are harmful to many kinds of animals. However, researchers have focused their studies on dogs, determining that exposure is harmful to the cells lining the respiratory system and results in increased sensitivity to stimuli that narrow their airways.
  • Lead: Lead is a naturally occurring but extremely toxic metal. There is no safe amount of exposure to lead for either animals or humans. Lead exposure can be deadly for many animals, potentially impacting the functionality of the respiratory, renal, digestive, skeletal, skeletal, nervous, and reproductive systems. Lead was commonplace before the 1970s and could be found in household products, gas, and paint. Because lead does not deteriorate over time, it remains in the air, soil, and water.
  • Pesticides: Pesticides refer to a wide range of chemicals that are used to kill pests and weeds. When spraying or applying pesticides, the chemicals don’t just land on plants; they’re released into the air. Pesticides can also contaminate food, water, and soil.

Where you live affects your air quality, as well as which pollutants are the biggest threat to your pet. For instance, if you live in the city, you may be more exposed to car exhaust and smog, while pesticides may be more common if you live in a rural area or agricultural community.

Outdoor air pollution is far more difficult to control than indoor pollution, but it is still possible to keep your pet safe from low-quality air.

How to Protect Your Pet From Unhealthy Air

Properly caring for your pet is the best way to protect them from air pollution. Make sure they are active, eat a balanced diet, and have an appropriate space or enclosure to rest. Take them to the vet for regular checkups or as soon as any health issues arise. If your pet is thriving, they’re more likely to stay healthy despite exposure to low-quality air.

That being said, there are several things you can do to ensure your pet’s safety when the air is unhealthy either inside or outdoors.

Indoor Air Quality Improvement Tips

You have more control over your home environment than you may realize. As a pet owner, here are some of the most effective strategies to improve the quality of air in your home:

  • Use an Air Purifier: You’ll also need an air purifier to make your air as clean as possible. Air purifiers won’t be able to remove all the pollutants from your home, but they can be effective when used in conjunction with your HVAC system and other air quality improvement strategies. If you get a portable air purifier, you can keep it in your pet’s room or move it into different rooms in your home, depending on where your pet is.
  • Don’t Use VOC Products: Avoid using products that contain VOCs. Take a strong look to see if your household cleaners have any VOCs, and replace those products with a safer, natural alternative.
  • Clean Frequently: Stay on top of your household chores and keep things sanitary and clean. Focus on frequent dusting and vacuuming to get rid of any allergens and debris that may irritate your pet.
  • Bathe Your Pet: If it is possible and safe to do so, bathe your pet. During the day, they may get dirty or pick up particulate matter. Washing that off will prevent them from inhaling it later, as well as experiencing skin irritation.
  • Don’t Smoke Indoors: Though it’s better to not smoke at all, never smoke inside. You also should never smoke anything around your pet, even when outdoors.
  • Control the Humidity: Find the right level of humidity in your home. You don’t want things to be too dry, but if they are too moist, it’s the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and even pests. If you want to regulate one room in your home, a small humidifier or dehumidifier may work. However, if you need to control the humidity in multiple rooms or your entire house, you may need to install a whole-house humidifier or dehumidifier.
  • Avoid Artificial Air Fresheners: Eliminate any artificial air fresheners from your home. Make sure any naturally scented products you use are not toxic to your pet.
  • Open Your Windows: Periodically open your doors and windows to let in some fresh air. You can even set up a fan by an open window or door to blow pollutants out of your home.
  • Buy Pet-Safe Plants: Certain plants are thought to help with air purification. If you do get air-purifying plants, make sure it’s safe for your pet to be around, as some plants are toxic to animals. Check the Toxic Plants List from the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center to find out which plants may be dangerous for your pet.

These small changes to your home and habits can make a big difference in terms of indoor air quality and your pet’s health.

Outdoor Air Quality Safety Tips

Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do to improve the quality of outdoor air. Instead, it’s better to focus on reducing your pet’s exposure and keeping them as safe as possible when exposure to unhealthy air is inevitable:

  • Notice Your Breath: Pay attention to your own breath. Is it difficult to breathe? Are your eyes, nose, or throat irritated? Are you sneezing, wheezing, or coughing? Remember that if you’re bothered by the effects of unhealthy air, your pet probably is too.
  • Watch the AQI: Similarly, keep an eye on the Air Quality Index (AQI). The AQI is a scale used to assess how healthy the air is. The higher the number displayed by the AQI, the lower the air quality. They also provide guidance about which activities are safe for certain groups, depending on the air quality.
  • Keep Windows and Doors Closed: On low-quality air days, keep your windows and doors closed. This will help keep safe, healthy air indoors while keeping unhealthy air outside.
  • Don’t Go Outdoors: On truly unhealthy air days, limit the amount of time your pet spends outside. Make bathroom breaks short and, if possible, hold off on exercise until the air is cleaner.
  • Bring Pets Indoors: Conversely, if your pet mainly lives outdoors, bring them inside during unhealthy air days. You can also look into solutions that would allow you to keep them outdoors; some kind of shelter can help keep their air clean, while also keeping them comfortable during hot spells and cold snaps.
  • Leave the Area: If the air is truly hazardous, consider taking your pet out of the area somewhere with cleaner air. Use it as an excuse to take a vacation, or find a trusted friend or pet sitter to look after them until things clear up.
  • Reduce Emissions: Make an effort to decrease your reliance on fossil fuels — and therefore decrease your contribution to air pollution. Cars are likely the biggest part of your carbon footprint, so look for opportunities to ride your bike or use public transit instead of driving.
  • Be Careful of Pesticides: If possible, reduce or eliminate your use of traditional pesticides. Doing so will reduce the chance that your pet accidentally inhales or ingests any hazardous chemicals.
  • Avoid High-Traffic Areas: On healthy air days, don’t take your pet to highly-trafficked areas, as air pollution tends to be more highly concentrated near roadways. Try going to a nearby park, hiking trail, or nature preserve and stay away from residential and commercial areas.
  • Look Out for Signs of Distress: No matter what the air is like, pay attention to your pet and see how they’re doing with the current air quality. Don’t hesitate to visit your vet if you notice any signs of respiratory distress.

Even if you take the above steps, you and your pet will certainly encounter air pollution again in the future. It’s inevitable. Try not to worry about what you can’t control, and focus instead on doing what you can reasonably do to keep your pet — and yourself — comfortable, happy, and healthy.