Visiting Veterinarian

Candles and pets don't mix

By Michele Gerhard Jasny V.M.D. - December 7, 2006

We're getting ready for Hanukkah at our house, polishing the menorahs. Also called a chanukiah, a menorah is an eight-branched candelabra used by Jews to memorialize their victorious battle for religious freedom against the Syrian king Antiochus in Judea (now Israel) over 2,000 years ago. The story goes that when the Jews recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem they wanted to rekindle the "Eternal Light" which is supposed to burn constantly, but there was only enough oil for one day. Miraculously, that little bit of oil burned for eight days, until more could be obtained.

So what's all this got to do with pets and vets, you ask? Candles. Pets and candles. Lots of candles. Each night of the eight-day celebration we light one additional candle in the menorah. One candle on the first night, two on the second, three on the third, and so on. Over the eight days of Hanukkah, one menorah will use 80 candles. And if you're not Jewish, maybe you have a lovely centerpiece of evergreen garlands festively strewn around the Christmas votives. Beautiful, but also combustible. Combine it with an inquisitive cat and you have a recipe for Kitty Flambé.

Fire safety specialists advise a two-foot "circle of safety." That means there is nothing flammable within two feet of a burning candle, but four-footed friends like Flambé may not observe this two-foot rule. Candle-related house fires have tripled in Massachusetts in the last decade. There are nearly 20,000 candle-related fires every year in the United States, resulting in over 1,500 injuries and one 165 fatalities. More candle-related fires happen in December than in any other month. Unlike the rest of the year, when the vast majority start in bedrooms, December's candle fires start in living rooms, dens, and family rooms.

The most common candle injury we see is the Curious Cat Whisker Curl, which occurs when Flambé gets too friendly with the candle and singes her whiskers. It is closely related to Toasted Tail Trauma. These mishaps are minor. Flambé quickly feels the heat and backs away, with nothing more than a bit of scorched fur. If hot wax sticks to our nosey friend, more serious damage can occur, but our greatest concern is if she knocks over a candle when no one is watching, and causes a true fire. If, God forbid, you have such an event, Flambé should be evaluated by a veterinarian, even if she looks fine. In people, lung damage due to smoke inhalation is the leading cause of fire-related death. Pets are less susceptible to smoke inhalation, probably because they are already down at floor level. (Remember how the firefighters instruct us to crawl our way out of a fire?) But Flambé may still need to be treated for smoke inhalation, and she should be observed for signs of lung damage, and burns over an extended period of time.

The severity of a burn injury may not be fully evident for several days. You may have experienced this yourself. Just last week I was making popcorn and accidentally knocked the back of my hand briefly against the sizzling pot. "Ouch," I shouted. It hurt a bit but looked fine, except for a little redness. Two days later it began to blister. By five days I had a big, weeping open sore. The reason is that even after the initial burning sensation has abated, heat dissipates slowly from our body's tissues. The longer the tissue is overheated, the more extensive the ultimate damage. This is why you mother told you to run your burnt fingers under cold water for a long time. She was right. You want to help draw out as much heat as you can. Flambé's fur may provide a layer of protection from contact burns, but it can also serve to hide wounds.

Many years ago I had a client who was broiling pork chops in the oven. He cracked the door open to check the meat, turned away for a moment, then flipped the door shut. A minute later he heard a racket inside the stove. He flung the oven open to find his cat trapped inside, the acrid scent of charred hair filling the room. Wrapping the cat in a blanket, he sped to my office in a panic. On examination Broiler Kitty was remarkably calm. She had grid marks burned into the fur across her back where she had bounced off the broiler coils. Looking closely, the underlying skin on her trunk appeared virtually normal. Luckily she had been closed in the oven only very briefly and had suffered no untoward effects other than her surface burns. I informed her owner that we would have to wait and see what developed over the next few days. Sure enough, a precise grill pattern of scabby wounds eventually appeared across her back.

Burns are classified by the depth of the damage and the percentage of the body affected. First-degree burns affect the superficial skin and are characterized by redness, swelling, and pain. These usually heal without complication or scarring. Second-degree burns extend into deeper layers of the skin, may take longer to heal, and can result in scarring. Third-degree burns involve complete destruction of the skin down to the underlying tissue. These types of wounds are far more likely to be complicated by serious infections. There is significant loss of fluids through the exposed tissues. Healing is slow and may require skin grafts. Fourth-degree burns extend into underlying tissues such as muscle and ligaments.

The percentage of the body burned is described by the "Rule of Nines." The head and neck are 9 percent, trunk and abdomen 18 percent, each limb is 18 percent. (Since this is extrapolated from human medicine, the tail isn't mentioned. I suppose we could include it in the 1 percent that is unaccounted for by the rule of nines.) First- and second-degree burns are treated topically with antibiotic ointments and bandages. Specialists recommend Silvadene ointment for these burns. Aloe vera gel has also been widely used in human burn patients with good results. Alternative treatments sometimes recommended include green tea solutions, and sugar or honey dressings. Third-degree burns require more elaborate care, including fluid therapy and systemic antibiotics based on cultures. In all burn cases, good pain control is essential and some pets may require anti-anxiety medications as well.

There are other burn injuries we see now and then in veterinary practice. The occasional cat who dances across the burner of a cook stove or a hot plate or rubs up too close to a space heater. The inexperienced cat who leaps onto the top of the wood-burning stove. These are all usually small first-degree burns - painful, inconvenient, but quick to heal. The tragedy we all dread is a real fire. Fires and burns are the second most common cause of death in young children (after car accidents). Take a minute from your holiday preparation to have a fire drill with your kids. Teach them "Stop, drop, and roll!" Make sure your smoke alarms are in place and functioning properly. Put your candles in safe locations, and never, ever, leave a burning candle unattended, especially not in a house with children or pets. Have a safe and happy holiday.