California wildfires may cause blood clots in cats’ hearts

dr Ronald Li, a critical care veterinarian at UC Davis, treated 23 cats rescued from the devastating Tubbs Fire that scorched Northern California for more than three weeks in October 2017. They had the kind of traumatic injuries he expected: first – third-degree burns, exposed skin and scar tissue.

But there was something else about these feline patients that caught Li’s attention: life-threatening blood clots.

“With heart scans, we noticed that clots were forming in their hearts,” he said. “But at the time we didn’t know why.”

Blood clots usually form in response to an injury, such as a cut or wound, to prevent uncontrolled blood loss. These weren’t the kind of problems the cats had to deal with.

A year later, as the campfire devastated 240 square miles east of Chico, Li collected blood samples from rescued cats that were brought to his clinic.

The researchers found that wildfire-affected cats were more likely to have blood clots, which could be life-threatening, compared to healthy cats. The rescued animals also had more blood clots than a group of cats with a relatively common type of heart disease that increases their risk of blood clots.

The findings, published this month in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Medicine, echo an earlier study by researchers at UC Davis that showed cats that got close enough to wildfires to be burned, or inhaled dangerous levels of smoke, did the same more likely to develop cardiovascular problems, such as thickening of the heart muscle that can lead to heart failure.

“The results are pretty compelling,” said Bruce Kornreich, director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, who was not involved with the research. “There is a lot of conserved biology in different species. This is something that could provide information that will benefit not only animals but humans as well.”

The new analysis was based on blood samples from 29 cats injured in the campfire and taken to UC Davis with burns, lung damage and heart problems. They were compared to 11 perfectly healthy cats and 21 cats who were generally healthy but had a form of heart disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

A person in scrubs holds a black cat with bandaged paws on a metal table.

Veterinary student Valerie Fates cares for a cat hospitalized during the 2017 Tubbs fire at UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.

(Rob Warren/UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine


The researchers found that the cats exposed to the campfire had highly activated platelets, but the other two groups did not.

Platelets circulate in the bloodstream, usually shaped like tiny discs. But when an injury occurs, nearby platelets are activated and form tentacles that clutch to form a blood clot. It’s their primary role in the body; activated platelets form barriers that prevent blood loss through a cut or wound.

The cats rescued from the wildfire didn’t have these types of injuries, but their platelets clumped together over the following days. These clots had the potential to restrict blood flow and cause severe disability. For example, blood clots in the limbs can cause paralysis, while clots that block the flow of oxygen to the brain can cause a stroke.

Cats with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy are also prone to developing blood clots. But the platelet activity in the rescued cats was up to twice as high as in the cats with heart disease. And compared to the healthy cats, it was about four times as high.

Li and his colleagues also found that the cats exposed to the campfire exhibited higher levels of platelet priming than their counterparts in the other two groups. Even in their normal state, primed platelets are particularly susceptible to being driven straight into overactive mode.

There is hope for cats exposed to wildfires. The researchers found that aspirin, which is commonly used as a blood thinner in humans and sometimes in cats, was able to stop platelets from clotting.

Kornreich noted that the study involved a relatively small number of cats, but said the finding was scientifically important because it came from real wildfire conditions.

“The most important thing about this paper from a veterinary perspective is to be aware of and be on the lookout for the risks these fires pose to cats,” he said.

Li said the study points to previously unknown mechanisms that can trigger platelets to become active, and this will be the focus of future research.

The results could also be relevant to understanding heart disease in humans because “a cat is probably one of the best large animal models for studying hypertrophic cardiomyopathy,” he said.

Increasing urbanization combined with more frequent and intense wildfires has put thousands of California homes at risk. This can affect the health of humans and their feline friends.

Kornreich advised cat owners to prepare for an evacuation by having a carrier, food, medication, and proper identification readily available at all times. To reduce the risk of smoke inhalation, he said, “it would be better to keep the cat indoors in a place where the air is conditioned.” When an animal is exposed to smoke or fire, “the most important thing is to Getting your cat to a vet immediately,” he said.

Four of the cats involved in the study died as a result of their wildfire injuries, but Li said the rest have fully recovered. California wildfires may cause blood clots in cats’ hearts

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