Pets and other animals inadvertently set about 510 house fires every year in this country. From 2006 to 2010, such fires caused an average of $8.7 million in property damage and injured eight humans a year, said John R. Hall Jr., division director for fire analysis and research for the National Fire Protection Association.
Animals — including wild ones or pests like rats or insects — are capable of starting a fire any time, but the majority involve a heat source, like a stove, light fixture, candle, embers, or a space heater, Hall said. And over colder holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, there's often more activity around those sources than usual.
On Feb. 4, a Vancouver, Wash., family left a new puppy home alone for the first time — and also food on the stove. The dog turned on the igniter trying to get to it, said fire department Capt. David James. The dog died, and the family's rental house was destroyed.
"It was insured and can be rebuilt, but people and pets can't be replaced," James said.
A dog and a stove nearly set afire Kay Wardlow's home in Norman, Okla., three years ago. Lucy, a Labrador retriever-basset hound mix with a penchant for chocolate, tried to get a cake off the stove while the family was out, Wardlow said.
They were alerted to smoke in the house when their home security company called to say their alarm had gone off. Lucy had hit the knobs on the gas stove, moving the automatic igniter just enough so it kept tripping and trying to light, she said.
"The heat melted the plastic on top of the cake pan and that's what filled the house with smoke," she said. Firefighters told her if the alarm company hadn't notified them, it would have flamed over and set the house on fire.
"You could smell the smoke from the street," with the smoke so thick that she couldn't see across a room, Wardlow said. When they opened the door, Lucy bounded out, wagging her tail and glad to see everyone. "It's hard to look at her and be mad at her."
Pets especially need monitoring around holidays, when owners may be cooking or baking treats more often or when potentially flammable decorations are out. A dog or cat wearing a homemade Halloween costume, especially one with a cape, might get too close to a jack-o-lantern with an open flame.
"If you dress your own dog, the fabric probably isn't fire-retardant," said Lisa Peterson, a spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club. "So you need to be vigilant."
Christmas trees, in particular, can topple when cats and dogs try to explore or climb them. Some decorations and overloaded electrical outlets can be dangerous.
Wardlow made preventative changes after Lucy's near-catastrophe. The dog now stays outside when the family isn't home and if she has to remain indoors, Wardlow removes the stove knobs.
She said she never imagined that her home security system, which she had set up for protection from burglars, would instead save her house "from a fire my dog nearly started."
Pets can cause fires in other surprising and unforeseen ways. James, who has been a firefighter for 30 years, recalled how a cat once caused a fire when it urinated while perched on a window ledge in a home. The urine ran down the wall into an electrical outlet, he said.
"The cat ran away but the receptacle ignited and scorched the outlet," James said.
In the event of a fire, animals only have a few minutes of advantage over people, James said.
"When a fire first starts — it's true — hot air rises, but then it gets trapped and starts banking down. Heat will follow the smoke and all the objects in the room will reach ignition temperature and then no place is safe," he said.
That's when pet owners should stay put, rather than attempting to enter a burning house to rescue a pet.
"It may have already gotten out and you risk dying in the fire," he said.