A structure fire not only puts human beings at risk, but they also jeopardize the health and well-being of family pets. Unfortunately, most firefighters and paramedics are unable to save the lives of small animals because they are ill-equipped for these types of emergencies.

“Firefighters will often retrieve a pet from a burning structure, but without the proper equipment, the pet may not be revived,” said Barb Motto, small animal coordinator for the Washington County Animal Rescue Team. “There is clearly a need to provide first responders with resources so they can help save the lives of animals during a fire or another emergency.”

Area firefighters, paramedics and EMTs recently got a crash course in small animal rescue procedures during a training at the Bentleyville Fire Department. During the event, Motto demonstrated how to approach animals at the scene, how to apply oxygen masks and administer CPR, how to restrain and muzzle an animal at the scene of an emergency, and how to use other specialized techniques.

Canon Hill Veterinary Clinic also provided funding so the Washington County Animal Rescue Team could purchase pet oxygen kits for local fire departments. The free kits include multiple oxygen masks for traditional pets such as dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs and birds, as well as a leash, carrying case and other essential items.

Motto, who was formerly a public health nurse for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said that many of the same techniques that firefighters and first responders use to save the life of a human being can also be applied for dogs, cats and other small animals.

“Firefighters and first responders already have many of the essential skill sets to stabilize and resuscitate a small animal until it can be safely transported to a veterinarian for further treatment,” said Motto. “But they should remember that during a fire or another emergency, a dog or cat will often become frightened and try to bite or run away. It’s also important for first responders to learn techniques so they can protect themselves when rescuing a small animal.”

Mark Giovanelli, chief of the East Bethlehem Township Volunteer Fire Company, was one of about 25 first responders who attended the training. He encourages other firefighters and first responders to take advantage of small animal rescue trainings that will be held throughout Washington County this year.

“Whenever we respond to a fire, we make every effort to find animals and to safely bring them out of a burning structure,” he said. “Typically, we hand over the pets to their owners and they take it over from there. But it’s clear that we can help to save the lives of more pets by using the equipment and techniques we learned tonight. This was a wonderful class and we are going to cross-train all the other members of our department in the use of this equipment.”

Among those in attendance at the training was Dr. Becky Krejci, a veterinarian at the Canon Hill Veterinary Clinic. Krejci said follow-up care is essential whenever a small animal is rescued from a fire.

“All too often, people assume that their dog or cat is breathing OK,” she said. “However, symptoms of smoke inhalation are often mild at first and pulmonary edema may not reveal itself until 24 to 48 hours later. That’s why it’s important to take your pet to see a veterinarian if it has been exposed to smoke.”

Krejci added that people should take extra precautions to keep their pets safe during severe winter weather.

“Make sure your dog or cat has adequate shelter from the cold and wind,” she said. “You also want to protect them for exposure to snow and ice. In addition, make sure your pet has enough food and an adequate water supply because water sources can freeze over very quickly.”

Motto said that pet owners can do many things to safeguard their dogs, cats and other animals.

“There is a lot of great information that’s available on the Web,” she said. “The Red Cross and the CDC tell how you can prepare for emergencies that may involve your pets. It’s also important for pet owners to prepare an emergency kit for their pets. That includes items such as documentation of pet vaccinations, medications and the name of your pet’s veterinarian. In the event of a disaster, your pet may be taken to a shelter and the only way you’ll get your pet back is if you show proof of ownership.”

Motto said the Washington County Animal Rescue Team is always looking for more volunteers.

“We all love our pets and we want to make sure they stay healthy,” she said. “Anyone who wants to help safeguard the lives of dogs, cats and other small animals who are at risk is welcome to join our team.”

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