Assessing cattle after a fire

Page last updated: Tuesday, 27 March 2018 - 1:49pm

Please note: This content may be out of date and is currently under review.

Cattle are common victims of fires in Australia. Cattle are generally less affected by fires than sheep because of their superior height and speed, but they can be severely burnt if trapped, such as by a fence. Cattle may sometimes outrun a fire front, but suffer substantial burns to the feet and legs when crossing recently burnt ground.

We supply this information to assist managers affected by fire to make good livestock decisions.

Care for cattle and yourself after a fire

Often fire can affect large numbers of cattle when left in paddocks with a high fuel load, such as dry grass.

Cattle are generally less affected by fires than sheep because of their superior height and speed but they can be severely burnt if trapped, such as by a fence. Cattle may sometimes outrun a fire front, but suffer substantial burns to the feet and legs when crossing recently burnt ground.

It is important to be aware that emotions can run high during and after a fire. It is critical to seek professional animal health and welfare advice to support sound decision making.

Initial assessment

After a fire, teams from the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) are assigned to assess property damage, deal with animal welfare needs and refer any human welfare concerns to the appropriate agency. The team will assess livestock and destroy those animals assessed for euthanasia.

Animals can be divided into 4 groups:

Other things to assess are:

  • availability of feed and water
  • the owner's ability to provide necessary care and attention
  • the prognosis for productive and reproductive performance of livestock.

Back to top

Category 1: Destroy immediately

Some stock will be able to walk at this stage, so these must be yarded for adequate individual inspection. The decision to destroy livestock should only be made on the grounds that the stock are too severely burnt to survive, or that it would be inhumane to keep them alive.

Areas on the animals that will need inspection include the head, legs, inside the shoulders and thighs, and around the tail. The vulva and udder of female stock and the sheath and scrotum of males will need careful inspection.

In females, burns to the udder and teats are common but not generally sufficient to warrant destruction unless associated with other areas of burn. Most will survive even if the function of the udder is lost. Cattle with suckling calves must have the teats checked.

Animals for destruction at this stage include those with:

  • severe burns to more than 15% of the body where areas of skin have been destroyed, making it split and slough away (Figure 1)
  • extensive damage to legs and feet with swelling of the legs and the skin is dry and leathery in appearance. If hooves are coming away, the animal must be destroyed because walking directly on the pedal bone causes considerable pain (Figures 1, 2)
  • severe burns to the face and eyes. The surface of the eye, the cornea, will take several weeks to heal. If the animal cannot see or has damaged lips or nose causing breathing difficulties, it should be destroyed
  • injuries that could become infected. Pneumonia and local tissue infection can develop and become severe, extensive and uneconomic to treat.

Back to top

Category 2: Salvage slaughter (if practical)

Animals that are not destroyed in the first instance will be revisited after some days to reassess their welfare and viability. Cows with moderate burns to teats and udders are best salvaged by slaughter. Where this is not a practical option, cows with udders with burnt teats should be dried off and teats reinspected after 3 to 4 weeks to assess functioning of the teat openings.

Category 3: Keep and nurse

Mobile and alert animals with only moderate burns to less than 10‒15% of their body are generally good candidates for retention, provided that suitable facilities, labour, fresh water and feed are readily available (Figures 3, 4).

Treatment and recovery is likely to be long and arduous, with no guarantee of success. Cattle should be inspected daily, and those seen to be deteriorating must be humanely destroyed.

Consideration must be given to the following:

  • a plan which may include advice from a veterinary surgeon and possible drug therapy, such as antibiotics. There are cost considerations with this action
  • suitable holding yards with a soft, even surface to facilitate observation and treatment
  • adequate supply of feed and ready access to water and shade. Burnt animals are reluctant to move and usually do not feed for a few days. They generally regain appetite after about a week, when they should be given high-protein feeds, such as good lucerne or meadow hay, or green summer crops or lucerne, to aid healing
  • daily attention for at least the first 10 days
  • be aware of the potential for flystrike on burnt areas and on the feet
  • the sheath of male and castrated animals should be specifically examined after about 4 days to remove any scabs that have formed and may be obstructing urination
  • cows with calves at foot will need special attention. Burnt teats may mean the cow will reject a young calf which will die without some intervention.

Back to top

Category 4: Animals without apparent damage

These are cattle that are apparently undamaged or have minor singeing of the hair and facial area but have sound feet. They should survive but must be re-assessed in 5 to 7 days. Particular attention should be paid to breathing difficulties caused by smoke inhalation which may take some time to become evident. Stock must be yarded to ensure adequate inspection.

Euthanasia

  • The owner has primary responsibility for welfare decisions.
  • An RSPCA officer or a general inspector (some rangers) can order the destruction of a suffering animal.
  • A veterinarian can euthanase a suffering animal without owner or inspector approval only under very limited circumstances.

Disposal

Disposal is usually burial. In sensitive areas, such as catchment areas and areas with high watertables, burial may not be possible.

Photographs of cattle affected by fire
Photograph of cow with badly burnt udder and legs requiring destruction
Figure 1 Cow with badly burnt udder and legs requiring destruction. © The State of Victoria, 1996-2018
Photograph of an animal with separation of the hooves at least one week after the fire and requiring destruction
Figure 2 An animal with separation of the hooves at least 1 week after the fire and requiring destruction. © The State of Victoria, 1996-2018
Photograph of burns to the scrotum requiring nursing and re-assessment after seven days.
Figure 3 Burns to the scrotum requiring nursing and re-assessment after 7 days. © The State of Victoria, 1996-2018
Photograph of burns to the sheath and scrotum requiring nursing and re-assessment after seven days
Figure 4 Burns to the sheath and scrotum requiring nursing and re-assessment after 7 days. © The State of Victoria, 1996-2018

Acknowledgement: The information in this factsheet has been sourced from the Victorian Department of Agriculture.

Contact information

Rick Bryant
+61 (0)8 9368 3346
Animal Welfare General Enquiries