Bushfires are a common occurrence in the Australian landscape and sometimes, despite the best plans and preparation, horses, livestock and other animals are caught up in bushfires. Animals that have been burnt should be immediately assessed as to the extent of the burns and then, depending on the injuries, either treated or euthanased. ‘Euthanasia’ means humanely ending the life of an animal when it is in the interest of the animal’s welfare and using a technique that avoids further pain, suffering or distress.
RSPCA Australia advocates that farm animals which have to be killed due to physical weakness or serious injury should be humanely and competently euthanased on site without delay.
NOTE: There is a belief that affected livestock cannot be euthanased until an insurance assessor has seen them. This is not the case and it is not standard practice for any insurer. Animals must be euthanased without delay to prevent further suffering.
General assessment post-bushfire
After the immediate event of fire and when safe to do so, emergency euthanasia on site is imperative for:
- Animals with severely charred limbs, muscles or facial burns that limit eating, drinking or breathing
- Animals with smoke or flame inhalation, resulting in acute pneumonia with laboured breathing, coughing, frothing at the nose and mouth
- Animals that are down and unable to rise due to burn (or other) injuries
- Animals that have severe burns with destroyed areas of skin on more than 10-15% of the body or to vital parts (feet, face, inguinal areas)
- Animals with major limb swelling.
The next phase is about a day after the fire and will last a considerable time. Remaining animals should be yarded and each animal must be turned up for close examination and assessment. Temporary yards can be used. Assistance of livestock owners/managers is essential for mustering and identification of livestock. See template below: ‘Recording bushfire-affected examination details’.
Sheep are more prone to fire injuries than other livestock. They run in a mob before a fire and pack against fences or in gullies where they are burnt or suffocated. The types of burns reflect this behaviour with animals on the outside of the mob being burnt. Those in the middle sometimes escape injury completely. Singed wool is not always a good indicator of the severity of a sheep’s burns. Sheep in full wool are less likely to have severe burns than those just off shears. The outer fleece can be charred but the skin may be unaffected. Apparently mild burns to vital areas can result in rapid deterioration, suffering and death.
It is important to reassess sheep daily or, if that is not possible, it would be humane to euthanase animals with less severe burns. The areas that must be closely examined on each sheep include: face, ears, lips, anus, vulva, teats, penis, prepuce, scrotum, axilla, inguinal areas, legs and feet. Lame sheep with hooves missing and/or separation between hooves and coronary band. Horn slowly regrows but sheep will be in ongoing pain and be prone to flystrike and infections. Unless constant pain relief can be guaranteed, sheep must be euthanased.
Goats are more susceptible to stress then sheep. They are less protected from radiation burns due to their coat of hair. Animals must be inspected individually, including a close examination of the skin. From there, the general assessment as described above should be undertaken.
Cattle generally manage to escape the full fire force and are burnt only if trapped against fences etc. Teats, udders, penis, scrotum and prepuce are commonly affected and may result in secondary problems (e.g. mastitis). Frequent reassessment is needed to ensure normal function returns, otherwise animals should be euthanased.
Burns to feet are painful and cattle are reluctant to walk and feed. Prolonged treatment with antibiotics may be necessary. Repeated veterinary assessment is required.
Like cattle, horses will usually escape from the path of the fire. Horses with even severe burns often respond well to intensive veterinary treatment. Initial veterinary advice is essential.
Pigs are very susceptible to heat stress and often will die from it. They do not cope with burns and all burnt pigs must be euthanased without delay.
Poultry are also very susceptible to heat stress and will usually die from it. Those surviving a fire will normally recover without treatment. To reduce further stress to the survivors, any injured birds requiring euthanasia should be collected at night when others are roosting.
All animals that are assessed and not euthanased in the emergency and delayed phases should be put in a ‘hospital’ paddock/yard where they can be regularly inspected and nursed.
For all animals, ensure:
- They are on the softest, most level ground available, especially if their feet are burnt
- They have ready access to good-quality feed and water. Burnt animals are reluctant to move and usually do not feed for a few days. They should be given high-protein feeds such as quality lucerne or meadow hay
- They are checked often to confirm they can move to water and can drink. Animals that are unable to drink must be euthanased
- They have ready access to existing – or makeshift – shade
- They are treated for worms, especially after rain.
Check all animals regularly for signs of deterioration, in particular check for flystrike on burnt areas and feet. Treat as necessary. Affected sheep may benefit from long-acting antibiotics for secondary infections. Seek veterinary advice.
The imperative is to ensure euthanasia is conducted humanely, efficiently, competently and without delay.
- Firearm (including captive bolt gun): generally the best choice as it is quick and effective when carried out correctly. It is important to consider the risks associated with using a firearm around livestock and people. Legal considerations regarding the use of firearms must be observed.
- Firearms and/or captive bolt guns must be used by trained, licensed and experienced operators.
- Lethal injection: can only be administered by a veterinarian. This is likely to be impractical with large numbers of livestock.
When euthanasing animals, all bystanders must be asked to leave the vicinity and every effort made to keep the procedure out of public view to ensure public safety and avoid causing distress.
To reiterate, burnt livestock do not require an insurance assessor to see them. Badly affected animals must, without delay, be euthanased to prevent further suffering.
For burnt, sick or injured city or metropolitan animals, take your animal/s to a veterinarian or call one to your property. Search for ‘vets near me’ in your search engine.
For burnt, sick or injured wildlife go to: this article or search ‘wildlife rescue near me’ in your search engine.