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A safer Spot: Donated equipment helps pets survive after smoke inhalation

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Pet oxygen masks
Bob Biege demonstrates how to position a pet oxygen mask on his service dog, Max, at the Reedsburg Area Ambulance Service garage while Sauk County EMS Association president Josh Kowalke watches. The oxygen masks, which come in three sizes for animals as small as birds or as large as dogs, can save a pet’s life from smoke inhalation after a fire.

Most pet owners consider animals to be furry, feathery or scaly members of their family.

After a fire, people want to make sure their special little pals are OK. Absent any evidence of burns or noticeable physical ailments, it's easy for people to assume their beloved animals are fine - but that assumption could be wrong.

"Pets have small lungs, so smoke inhalation is a real concern," Bob Biege said.

Biege, a member of the Baraboo Rotary Club and owner of an Australian Labradoodle named Max, is leading a charge to ensure that every fire department in Sauk County is equipped with animal oxygen mask kits.

Biege said he learned that oxygen masks could save an animal's life after a fire. He said that if smoke inhalation goes untreated, it could lead to a pet's death within a day or two of exposure - even if the dog doesn't appear to have any symptoms immediately afterward.

"I'm a dog lover, obviously," Biege said while petting Max.

"Any kind of oxygen to an animal or a person who has been in a fire can be an absolute lifesaver," said Matt McGlynn, a local veterinarian.

Although McGlynn said he hasn't come into contact with any house pets who have suffered from smoke inhalation, he has seen livestock put down because of it. He said smoke inhalation damages lung tissue, making it difficult for the body to absorb oxygen - a problem that can lead to death.

Unfortunately, McGlynn added, smoke inhalation can worsen over time if proper care is not taken immediately. Initial treatment, such as use of an oxygen mask on the scene, could be the difference between life and death, he said.

The only problem Biege had was finding kits small enough for animals and getting them to the right people to perform on-site care. Then Biege found Wag'N Enterprises, a company that markets pet safety gear, and its "O2 Fur Life" program.

With three different mask sizes, the only other item needed is on oxygen tank - an item carried by all emergency responders. The special masks fit animals as small as snakes, bird or hamster - and all the way up to dogs such as St. Bernards.

According to its website, the Wag'N O2 Fur Life Program has distributed more than 1,300 pet oxygen masks to more than 500 departments across the nation since 2008.

The Baraboo Rotary purchased several kits and donated them to Josh Kowalke, president of the Sauk County EMS Association. The intent is to have them distributed to all 12 county fire departments over time.

Kowalke said the Reedsburg Fire Department already has similar animal oxygen mask kits. Fire Chief Craig Douglas confirmed the department received some several years ago through a donation.

"It's just a good idea to have," he said.

However, Douglas said his staff has never taken them out of the fire truck and they've never been used. Part of that is due to a lack of training, he said.

Kowalke said he plans to provide the necessary training to Douglas and Reedsburg firefighters, ensuring that they know how to use the equipment. Furthermore, the kits come with training videos and instructions that should explain the basics, Kowalke said.

"I foresee us doing a joint training on them in the future," he said. "We'll follow all the training guidelines."

A training video on the Wag 'N website demonstrates how to place the cone-shaped mask on a conscious animal and what to do if the animal is unconscious. It even shows how to subdue an animal that becomes frantic.

"Some dogs may be in a panic," Biege said when asked if animals would be willing to have the mask put on their face. "But some animals may be unconscious."

McGlynn said his experience as a veterinarian, using his own oxygen mask, has shown that not all animals like having a device placed over their nose and mouth, especially under stress.

"Your average dog or cat probably won't like it," he said. "They're not really thrilled about having that put on them."

Biege said using the oxygen masks on pets that appear to be in good health after a fire can save their lives. Any pet surviving a fire or inhaling a significant amount of carbon monoxide should be taken to a veterinarian immediately, even if symptoms are not obvious.

According to the Wag'N website, about 40,000 pets die due to smoke inhalation every year, although the numbers are unofficial due to difficulty in tracking incidents.

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