RUFFIN — Losing a precious pet in a house fire compounds grief for most victims. And firefighters here have a new tool on their trucks that may save dogs, cats and even guinea pigs and turtles, in fact.

Josh Brady and his crew answer about 600 calls a year as firefighters at Oregon Hill's Volunteer Fire Department, and Brady can't remember one time he's been able to save an animal overcome by smoke inhalation.

Now, though, Brady's engine is equipped with three custom oxygen masks for pets. Designed to accommodate puppy snouts and the contours of kitty faces, these specialty masks can efficiently deliver oxygen in ways that makeshift rigs of human masks cannot, firefighters explain.

Nationwide, between 40,000 and 150,000 pets die in house fires each year, with about 500,000 surviving with health damage. Most of those deaths are caused by smoke, which overwhelms the small and vulnerable lungs of pets.

Roughly 36% of North Carolina households include pets, which translates to about 32,400 Rockingham County families with animals at home. 

In answer to the high number of pet deaths, Invisible Fence, Inc., a major manufacturer of pet safety products, launched "Project Breathe," in 2008. The  initiative supplies free pet masks and training videos to fire departments across the country and in Canada.

And helping small fire departments like Oregon Hill is a task the company is happy to take on, said Phillip Howard, vice president of operations for Invisible Fence, Inc. South in Charlotte.

"You don't always find money in the budget -- especially in rural and volunteer fire departments-- for special equipment like this,'' Howard said Thursday of the custom veterinary supplies his operation sources from a top New Zealand manufacturer. "And it's a good thing we can provide for the community.''

So far, Invisible Fence has donated 800 mask kits, or 2,400 masks of various sizes, to fire departments across the Southeast. And they have more to offer.

Eden firefighters say they, too, have the donated pet masks, but have yet to use them.

"The stories we've heard in the past were about firefighters trying to use human masks, but they couldn't get a snug fit,'' Howard said. "With these masks, the pet can get oxygen more efficiently.''

Having such custom equipment at the scene, "is your best shot,'' at saving a smoke-compromised pet, said Dr. Steven Marks, an associate dean and director of Veterinary Medical Services at N.C. State University in Raleigh.

An expert in veterinary emergency medicine, Marks explained, "Animals and children have similar reactions to fire ... sometimes they don't know how to react. For pets, that can mean they run and hide, and are left in a structure longer, making them even more susceptible to smoke inhalation.''

"The human-animal bond is what drives this,'' Marks said of increased awareness of pet safety across the board. "I think first responders work really hard to give, and they want to help. So often people say, 'Where's my dog, where's my cat? And these first responders want to be able to help everyone.''

And such masks can aid more than just dogs and cats, manufacturers and Marks reminded. Indeed, the masks can technically work for turtles, frogs, guinea pigs, miniature pigs, and more. Designed with snug rubber seals, the masks can hug different size snouts and necks, for example.

Not long ago, Brady reported to a fire at a house with a pet snake. While the  reptile didn't require aid, Brady imagines his equipment might have worked on the critter.

Marks, who as a young man resuscitated a bird, points out that even if a mask doesn't work on certain animals, caregivers can rig a plastic bag or closed container with an oxygen hose and create a chamber of fresh air for a pet.

Beyond training his some 50 volunteers to use the masks, Brady has scheduled a pet CPR seminar for this fall. "We're gonna do this for our next training,'' he said, reviewing a chart that shows how to position a dog or cat for resuscitation. 

The training marks a trend nationwide to respond to a kind of cultural explosion of interest in the pet-human bond. We see it in the rise in the number of service animals, Marks notes. And specialty pet stores and products and pet-friendly businesses are on the rise.

Happily, Rockingham County firefighters in Eden and Oregon Hill haven't yet had to use their pet masks, but, "It's nice to know we have them and we can do something for the animals.'' Brady said.

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Susie C. Spear is a staff writer for RockinghamNow. She can be reached at 743-333-4101 and on Twitter @SusieSpear_RCN.​

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