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Veterinary Talk by Dr. Jim Humphries

What happens to pets in a house fire?

By Dr. Jim Humphries – Veterinarian

Each year in the United States, thousands of people lose their lives to fire. Tens of thousands are injured and the financial costs can reach into the billions of dollars. Almost forgotten in these tragedies are the hundreds of thousands of family pets who suffer death or injury as well.

Fire is a very scary thing. We use controlled fires to heat our water, cook our meals and power our cities, but for most people, fire is a wild, ravaging beast. And despite educational programs that start in pre-school; every year, more than three thousand people die in house fires. Sadly, those who survive a house fire often lose cherished four-legged family members to the smoke and flames.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration’s website (, more than 1.7 million uncontrolled fires occur annually in the U.S. The Fire Administration does not keep a tally, but other groups have estimated that more than 500,000 pets are killed by house fires each year. Why are we so good at saving human lives, but our pets seem to perish?

One potential answer is the presence of smoke alarms in our homes. For more than 30 years, laws have required these in any home or apartment. In fact, the Public/Private Fire Safety Council has called for an elimination of residential fire deaths by the year 2025, and smoke alarms figure prominently in their plan. But the high-pitched alarm that saves so many human lives is not helpful for saving our pets. It scares them, but they don’t know what to do. 

Worse yet, it can cause them to go into hiding, increasing our own risk for harm as we search for the missing kitty or pup.

Therefore, many pets will die in house fires because they are unable to get out of the home. This often happens when the family is away. Rescue personnel are frequently unaware of pets needing help.

The heroic efforts of firefighters may save some pets from the flames, but damage from smoke or carbon monoxide inhalation can overwhelm many. This may mean some animals may die enroute to the veterinarian. 

Fortunately, many diverse groups are working to improve the survival chances of pets caught in fires. Many concerned groups, from alarm monitoring companies, to local veterinarians and humane organizations are looking to save the half-million pets lost each year.

As with many tragedies, preventing the occurrence is the best first step. Pet owners are urged to “pet proof” their home and look for potential fire hazards. Always extinguish open flames before leaving your home and consider keeping younger puppies and kittens confined to prevent them from accidentally starting a fire.

Get a window sticker alerting the firefighters there are pet family members in the house! All firefighters are trained to look for these alert signs and will make attempts to save pets IF they can. These “window clings” are often available from the American Kennel Club or visit ADT’s website ( to obtain a free one. Beyond using the signs, you should always update them as new pets arrive in your family!

If you return home to a burning building, as much as you want to, you should not attempt to enter, trying to save your pets! This is difficult but you need to let the professionals do their job and rescue your animals.

As mentioned, working smoke alarms are helpful to the humans, but if you aren’t there to hear the alarm, your pets could be trapped inside. I spoke with Bob Tucker, PR Director of ADT Security, he says pet owners should consider monitored smoke detection services as an extra precaution. By alerting the fire department more quickly, these services increase the chances that your pets will get out safely.

Finally, due to the efforts of local veterinarians and animal volunteers, many rescue services across the nation now have access to “animal-appropriate” oxygen masks. These devices help deliver life-saving oxygen more effectively and will increase the chance of your pet’s survival. Other veterinarians teach courses to first responders on effective animal CPR techniques. 

Saving pets from the horrors of fire will be easier thanks to dedicated fire fighting professionals, alarm companies, veterinarians and humane organizations all working together. 


Dr. Jim Humphries has been a veterinarian for 45 years. He has served in the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps and as the veterinarian at the CBS News Morning Show in New York and CNN. He has written for Family Circle Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. He now serves as an adjunct professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. He lives in Falcon with his wife, horses and Great Danes (and chickens).

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