Carbon monoxide poison is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas. It’s a natural by-product of fuel combustion present in car exhaust and improperly vented furnaces, space heaters, water heaters, fireplaces, and tobacco smoke. It can quickly kill people as well as their pets.
Pet owners are very aware of the heat stroke dangers of leaving puppies in hot cars during the summer. But cars in cold weather can also pose dangers beyond that of frostbite or hypothermia. Children and pets have died in as little as 15 minutes from carbon monoxide inside running cars while parents shoveled snow outside the vehicle, unaware the tailpipe was blocked. Running the car in a closed garage poses the same danger.
The gas causes the same symptoms in puppies and other pets as in their owners. However, carbon monoxide is lighter than air, so pups that live at or below human knee level may not show symptoms as quickly as their owners. Small puppies or dogs, though, that are carried around such as in an owner’s purse and especially those exposed to second-hand-smoke could be stricken as quickly as their taller owners. Birds are particularly susceptible and often show signs first.
Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
The most common symptom of human carbon monoxide poisoning (low doses) in otherwise healthy people is fatigue. That clears up when you leave the house. In heart patients it can cause chest pains. Higher concentrations cause headache, confusion and disorientation, and flu-like symptoms with vomiting. Ultimately, the poison victim falls into a coma. When the victim is asleep during exposure to the poison, the dog, cat, bird or the person may never wake up.
We don't know if poisoned pets suffer headaches because they can’t tell us about this early sign. But they do act confused, lethargic, and drunk in the same way as human victims. If your normally high-energy puppy doesn’t want to play but acts rejuvenated once outside for a while, that could indicate a potential problem. A distinctive sign common to both people and pets is bright cherry-red gums in the mouth.
How Carbon Monoxide Poisons Pets
Here’s what happens. Carbon monoxide is inhaled, absorbed from the lungs into the bloodstream. There it binds with hemoglobin, the oxygen-transporting component of blood. This blocks the hemoglobin from using or carrying oxygen at all, which affects all areas of the body including the brain. The gas creates a kind of chemical suffocation.
The body can only get rid of the poison bound to the hemoglobin by breathing it out, or by replacing the poisoned hemoglobin with new. The liver and spleen replace hemoglobin about every ten to fifteen days. When only a small amount of the blood is affected, the victim recovers without treatment as long as no more poison is inhaled.
But high levels of blood saturation will kill the person or pet unless emergency treatment is given. Twenty-five percent saturation level is considered dangerous for people. Usually, though, both people and pets should be treated when the carbon monoxide saturation level is ten percent or higher. Puppies are so much smaller, they can be affected more severely by the poison. Smokers will be more susceptible because they already have an elevated level of carbon monoxide in their bloodstream. In other words, if one family member smokes, he or she may suffer symptoms sooner than other non-smoking family members.
Treatment for Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Poison victims are treated with high concentrations of oxygen. That increases the amount of gas that is breathed out. Many hours of oxygen therapy may be required. In some cases, ventilation may be necessary.
To protect yourself and your puppies from carbon monoxide poisoning, get your heating units inspected every year before you start using them. Carbon monoxide detectors are also available to be installed as a warning system.
If you notice any change in your pet's behavior or your own health that coincides with cold weather or the furnace coming on, don’t automatically assume it’s the flu. Consult with medical specialists for both your pets and for yourself.