invisible danger: carbon monoxide awareness week

Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Sep 25 2013

September 23rd through the 29th is Carbon Monoxide Awareness week for our friends across the pond in the United Kingdom. While we don’t have a similar week designated for this “silent killer,” we should all be aware of the risks that carbon monoxide poses to both us and our four legged family members.

Carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless, which is makes it particularly dangerous. Because it goes undetected, you can be poisoned without even knowing it, and prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide is fatal. Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of the incomplete combustion of carbon-containing compounds such as oil, gas, and coal. It arises when there is not enough oxygen to form carbon dioxide (CO2), generally due to a poorly ventilated space. Propane heaters, gasoline engines, and fumes from carbon based fuel heating systems are all potential sources.

Carbon monoxide gas is readily absorbed into the bloodstream, where it can combine with hemoglobin. Normally, hemoglobin carries oxygen to vital tissues, but in presence of carbon monoxide, this does not occur. Carbon monoxide competes with oxygen for space on the hemoglobin, denying the chance for hemoglobin to carry out its job of delivering oxygen. This results in decreased oxygen delivery to the brain, heart, and all other tissues.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide toxicity include extreme lethargy, weakness, uncoordinated movements, coma, and eventually death. The gums of affected animals will be cherry red in color rather than pink.

Though there are many stories of dogs saving their sleeping owners from the effects of carbon monoxide by alerting them to trouble, the truth is that dogs and cats are susceptible to toxicity as well. Carbon monoxide toxicity is preventable, though, by ensuring adequate ventilation in areas where fireplaces and gas ovens are used, and by never leaving pets in vehicles that are running in enclosed spaces. Carbon monoxide detectors are readily available at hardware stores or online, and much like smoke detectors, they will alert you to dangerous levels of the deadly gas.

If you discover that your pet has been exposed to carbon monoxide, take him outdoors to be exposed to fresh air. The carbon monoxide level in your pet’s body will decrease when the source of the gas is removed. You should make your way to the nearest veterinary hospital or emergency center as soon as possible so that your pet can receive treatment. Treatment for carbon monoxide toxicity includes oxygen therapy and intravenous fluid therapy, both aimed at increasing the oxygen perfusion to vital tissues.

When your pet is released to go home, remember to take it slow. It may take a couple of weeks for your pet to fully recover, especially in the case of severe toxicity. If you do not already have a carbon monoxide detector in your home, consider installing one this week to keep your whole family safe!