Cats who recovered from injuries and burns during recent Northern California wildfires have done more than return to their thankful owners' laps.
They've helped the veterinarians who treated them study the medical effects that burns and smoke, and perhaps stress, have on the feline heart, a knowledge that in the future could help doctors understand how an increase in wildfires fueled by climate change affects the human body.
"These cats could be the canary in the coal mine, letting us know what might happen if more people are exposed to these types of wildfires," said Catherine Gunther-Harrington, assistant professor of clinical cardiology at UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.
The study, which began a little bit by circumstance, found that cats who suffered burns and smoke inhalation during the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa and the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the city of Paradise, experienced a high incidence of heart muscle thickening and blood clot formation. Muscle thickening makes it difficult for the heart to fill with blood and pump it to the body. Blood clots can cause sudden death.
Teams at the veterinary hospital mobilized quickly during the blazes, sending disaster response teams into the field to help injured animals and assembling teams of doctors and students in the hospital to care for them and those brought in by owners.
"Everybody was on high alert and at the ready," Gunther-Harrington said. "Many people were working many extra hours to make sure these animals got the assessment and the care that they needed. It was a little chaotic, but I think it was a well-oiled machine because of the structure and the organization of our critical care service."
During the fires, rescue organizations, owners and first responders sought help for dozens of animals, including cats, goats, pigs, horses, chickens and more, an article on the school's website said. Animals suffered everything from burns and smoke inhalation to dehydration and other injuries.
Many pets treated at veterinary clinics required specialized care for burns that the hospital could offer. UC Davis runs the pre-eminent veterinary school in the nation.
"Whoever tends to my baby Apu, thank you for your love and care for my angel," one cat’s owner, Brandi, wrote in a note to the staff, posted on Facebook Oct. 1, 2018. "I am so thankful for all you are doing. You are my miracle."
The veterinary hospital staff of doctors, technicians and students operated similarly to an emergency room for humans during a disaster, assessing patients in triage, offering care for smoke inhalation and respiratory issues, and treatment for burns and wounds. Many of those who cared for animals were volunteers, including veterinarians with expertise in cardiology, surgery, ophthalmology and dermatology, she said.
Although they treated all types of animals – though not many dogs – during the two fires, they cared for more than 50 cats, outdoor animals not as easy to corral for those trying to escape the blazes. They included 32 males, 19 females, all adults including 50 shorthairs and one Persian.
"All of these animals were coming in with severe burns," Gunther-Harrington said. "Many of those required heavy sedation or anesthesia."
Before giving the cats medication, doctors checked their hearts. The echocardiograms, or heart sonograms, discovered that more than half of the cats were already suffering from heart muscle thickening and nearly 30 percent developed blood clots or were at high risk of developing blood clots. Six cats died during their care, but more than 80 percent recovered from the thickening, survived and went home.
The study, Gunther-Harrington said, is important for veterinarians in the future to immediately examine cats’ hearts following a wildfire to prevent deaths.
"I would imagine that many other animals would be affected in a similar way," she said.
But what about humans exposed to heavy smoke, stress and burns? The concern, Gunther-Harrington said, is whether "these cats are the sentinels, letting us know there might be more severe changes in people or others exposed."
People, she said, also experience cardiovascular changes after burns. The risk increases with the severity of the injury.
In the cats studied, the incidence of cardiac changes was higher than that for humans. Both cats with moderate and severe burns experienced the changes.
Gunther-Harrington called the UC Davis study a "great place to start." More research might help understand if the changes in cats’ hearts translates to humans and can lead to more effective ways to treat both cats and their owners, especially with the expectation that climate change will bring more devastating and increasingly frequent brushfires in the future.
"The biggest thing is for us this is just the beginning," she said.