A firefighter using a human oxygen mask on a cat. Prior to receiving 28 donated animal oxygen masks, HCDFRS had to use human masks.
A firefighter using a human oxygen mask on a cat. Prior to receiving 28 donated animal oxygen masks, HCDFRS had to use human masks. (Brad Tanner / HCDFRS)

Howard County fire and rescue crews have been given 28 pet-specific oxygen masks to help resuscitate animals.

“Animals are an extension of our family, our companions, our friends,” Brad Tanner, a county fire department spokesman, said. “Just like humans, animals in the event of a house fire, or a structure fire for that matter, can be exposed to those toxic gases that are emitted from a fire and breathing that in, there’s possibility that they would need to have some medical assistance.”


The Department of Fire and Rescue Services received kits with reusable masks and operating instructions from a private company last week. The masks, made of polycarbonate plastic, are rounder than human masks to fit snugly around an animal snout.

The masks were designed by veterinarians, said Deborah Smith, the Howard and Eastern Montgomery counties dealer with Invisible Fence Brand of Maryland, the company that donated the kits, which cost about $100 apiece. They can be reused because “humans are prone to much more fatal diseases," and the kits have instructions on how to clean them, Smith said.

Firefighters will be trained in how to use the kits, a process that could take about six months, said EMS Executive Chief Rick Leonard. He added that using the masks “really is kind of self-explanatory” since the design is essentially the same as human masks. Animal masks provide a continuous stream of oxygen, while human masks can be more controlled, said Dave Sabat, a captain in EMS operations.

The training will instruct responders to recognize animal distress, deliver the oxygen and how to clean the masks afterward, Sabat added.

Maryland enacted a law in 2017 giving first responders protection when providing medical aid to animals in emergencies. Emergency personnel hadn’t been covered by Good Samaritan laws — legal protections for people assisting others in peril — for animals, since providing help was deemed to be practicing veterinary medicine without a license.

“Now that it’s been passed through the Maryland General Assembly, the Good Samaritan law protects them and lets them render aid and care to the best of their ability,” Tanner said. “Having this equipment now, this potential life-saving equipment, can really help out.”

According to a 2018 American Veterinary Medical Association post, residential fires claim about 40,000 pet lives per year. Most of them die because of smoke inhalation. Invisible Fence’s website says it has donated more than 22,000 masks, which have saved “at least 185 pets from fire and smoke inhalation.”

The county fire department did not have statistics on how frequently they treat pets.

Fire departments typically receive one donated kit per station, but the company made an exception for Howard County, providing 28 because the department requested them for their emergency medical technicians, too, Smith said.

“Firefighters, paramedics and first responders in general, they’ve got a commitment to saving lives — and those lives could be an animal life, because it's a family member, too,” Tanner said.