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Pet oxygen masks almost standard equipment for firefighters

CLARENDON, Vt. --Fire helmet? Check. Gloves? Check. Ax? Check.

Pet oxygen masks? Check.

Pet oxygen masks? Increasingly, they're becoming standard equipment for firefighters. Hoping to save cats, dogs and other family pets caught in house fires, animal advocacy groups and pet products suppliers are equipping departments all over the country with cone-shaped plastic masks that fit snugly on snouts and can resuscitate animals suffering from smoke inhalation.

The masks -- which come in three sizes -- connect to oxygen tanks and can be used on ferrets, birds, guinea pigs, rabbits and other animals.

"In the past, we used regular air masks like the firefighters use," said Norman Flanders, fire chief in this small southern Vermont town, which was given a set by a local animal welfare group Tuesday. "In a pinch, it works. But these masks are designed specifically to fit over the muzzle of a cat or a dog."

An estimated 60 million U.S. households have pets, but statistics on how many die in house fires are hard to come by.

"They stay low, they try to breathe the air," said Edison, N.J., firefighter Thomas Shjarback, whose department uses them. "You usually find them near the front door. And when you do pull them out, the human masks don't quite fit over their face. You try to do a blow-by, where you take your oxygen mask and try to get as much air into them as you can. It works sometimes, but not enough."

The masks were originally developed for use by veterinarians but have evolved into rescue tools over the last several years, according to Brandi Marks, clinical customer service manager for the veterinary division of Smiths Veterinary Medical PM Inc., of Waukesha, Wisc., which distributes them.

More than 2,500 sets have been distributed by Best Friends Pet Care, a kennel company that established a "Cause for Paws" campaign in 2004 that encourages donations by pet lovers and then matches them to buy the masks, which cost about $60 per set.

The campaign began after a firefighter told employees at one of the company's stores of his own frustration watching pets die, according to Debra Bennetts, a Best Friends spokeswoman.

Dr. Scott Shaw, emergency and critical care veterinarian at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University said pets often hide during fires.

"It's just their instinct when something like that happens. They'll run into a bed, or run into a closet. They're not waiting at the window to be rescued."

Research has shown that those that get oxygen therapy in the field have a better chance of recovering from respiratory injuries than those that don't.

"Giving oxygen quickly definitely can make a difference," he said.

The fire department in Prospect, Conn., got two sets donated to it in 2004, and two days later used one to resuscitate a Yorkshire terrier pulled from a fire.

"He was wobbly and he had very shallow breathing," said Fire Chief Robert Chatfield. "The owner held him and we got the mask on him and in about 2 1/2 minutes, he was fine."

Fire departments in South Burlington and Rutland also have pet oxygen masks.

H.E.L.P. Animals, Inc., an Orange City, Fla., non-profit animal advocacy group, has distributed the masks, using donations to buy and ship them to fire departments in more than 40 states, according to spokeswoman Karen Clark.

Among its customers: The Rutland Area Disaster Animal Response Team, which gave a set of masks to the 36-member Clarendon Volunteer Fire Association on Tuesday.

"If we can increase the chances of survival with something so simple, we want to do it," said Animal Response Team President Nancee Schaffner. "This has kind of started to sweep the nation. Hopefully it'll save some lives."