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Animal oxygen masks now on hand at 16 of 30 fire stations

The Baltimore Sun

Rest assured, Anne Arundel County pet owners: A dog, cat, bird or even a reptile needing oxygen after being rescued from a burning building can be treated with the latest in life-saving equipment.

Oxygen masks are now available for pets at 16 of the county's 30 fire stations, a move that fire officials and animal lovers hope will reduce the number of animals killed by smoke inhalation.

Anne Arundel County fire officials respond to about two dozen to three dozen fires a year that require pet resuscitations, Battalion Chief Matthew Tobia, a department spokesman, said yesterday during a demonstration of the masks. He didn't have statistics on animal fatalities.

"Clearly what we're highlighting is the fact that now we have a very special piece of equipment to save [people's] pets, and we never want them re-entering their home once they made it outside," Tobia said.

The masks, donated by a local animal fitness center, protrude in a bubble shape several inches from the face to better fit the large snouts of some animals. They come in different sizes to fit an array of critters and cost about $60 for each set of three.

They are manufactured in New Zealand and have been sold in the United States since 2002. Animals, Inc., a charity in Orange City, Fla., distributes the masks to fire departments and other rescue personnel across the country, said Lisa Husten, a product manager at SurgiVet, which sells the masks.

Fire departments in at least 49 states are using the technology, said Cheryl Crozier, the director of H.E.L.P. Animals, Inc.

"We're at a point now, about once a month, that we're getting a note about firefighters resuscitating sugar gliders, snakes, dogs, cats," Crozier said.

Deborah and Donald Heptner, of Bethlehem, Pa., the proud owners of 72 cats, said the masks helped save the lives of two of their cats, Velvet and Tuffy. Firefighters rescued the pair from a second-floor bedroom during a fire at their home last month. The Heptners weren't home at the time.

"Thank God for those firefighters that had those masks," said Deborah Heptner, a school bus driver, adding that her cats suffered from smoke inhalation, small burns and singed whiskers.

The cats spent four days at a veterinary clinic hooked up to IVs and breathing machines, she said, but they survived and are doing well now.

On hand to model the masks at the Armiger Fire Station in Pasadena was Dora, a 14-month-old chocolate labrador owned by County Executive John R. Leopold.

"It's absolutely devastating to have a fire and lose an animal," Leopold said. "Pets are part of the family."

Dora, who he said was bought from the same breeder as Buddy, former President Clinton's now-deceased Lab, was boisterous but well-behaved during her publicity run.

She allowed Leopold to put the mask over her nose and licked a reporter's shoes, but did not bark.

Maury and Lynn Chaput, the owners of Canine Fitness Center in Crownsville, first learned about the masks on the Internet, and contacted Anne Arundel Fire Chief David L. Stokes, who liked the idea.

The Chaputs raised the money through private donations to buy the masks, with the goal of buying enough to equip the entire county fire department, and eventually fire departments across the state.

Catherine Martin, a county firefighter and paramedic, said she successfully used a human oxygen mask on a cat a few years ago after it was rescued from a house fire in Edgewater. But, she added, the human masks aren't the greatest fit.

"I know that if my dog was in a fire, I'd want her to have this equipment at her disposal," Martin said, flashing a cell phone photo of her 3-year-old Rottweiler, Zoey.

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