Cattle health concerns remain after wildfire passes

Sep 15, 2020

Adapted from Wildfire Aftermath: Beef Cattle Health Considerations, Russ Daly, DVM, South Dakota State University and Wildfire, Smoke and Livestock, John Madigan, David Wilson, Carolyn Stull, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis.

During a wildfire, your immediate concern for your cattle may be losing them to the fire. Burns may be so severe that the humane thing to do is to put them down, but unfortunately, that may not be the end of the worries about their welfare, which is why their status must be assessed daily. Wildfires can result in longer term health complications.  Animals may stop eating after a few days to weeks when their status starts to deteriorate. Below are things to be aware of. 


Smoke inhalation can have long-term effects as well as immediate effects on the respiratory system. Check for facial or muzzle burns or even a crusty nose for signs of an animal who is likely to have suffered smoke inhalation. Here's what to expect from smoke inhalation:

Short term

o   1-24 hours: Pulmonary edema. Fluid builds up in the alveoli (air exchange areas deep in the lungs) due to the irritant effect of smoke. Rapid, moist breathing and coughing will result. You may see some frothing at the nose.

o   Several hours to several days: The small airways deep in the lungs swell up, making it harder for air to pass through to the alveoli, where the oxygen exchange happens. Heavy, labored breathing and wheezing is a result as air whistles through the partially blocked airways.

Long term

o   4-10 days later: Increased potential of pneumonia due to damage to respiratory defense mechanisms. 

o   4-6 weeks later: Healing of the airways is as complete as it will get. Until this time, cattle may be more prone to shortness of breath and acute respiratory collapse if they are excited or stressed. Care should be taken when working cattle to reduce stress the few months following the fire or whenever smoke is visible. Ideally, do not attempt to handle, move or transport for 4 to 6 weeks post-fire or after air quality is back to normal.

o   Months to years: Some survivors may be intolerant of exercise or heat due to longer-term damage to small airways. Good records will help you identify animals who have survived a fire and help make informed culling decisions. 

Consult a veterinarian for treatment advice. Preventative antibiotics to ward off pneumonia as well as anti-inflammatories may be an option for some animals, but will require a prescription from your veterinarian and a potential lengthy withdrawal period before slaughter. Provide plenty of fresh water, which will help keep airways moist. Limit dust exposure by feeding dust-free feeds and sprinkling or misting areas of congregation.


The most common result of severe heat damage is the sloughing of hooves 1 to 3 weeks after the fire. They may appear normal and healthy, but then there is a sudden onset of lameness, with signs of infection around the coronary band.  While this can be confused with infection or foot rot, it usually means that hooves are in the process of sloughing, and antibiotic treatment will not be helpful. With few exceptions, these animals should be humanely euthanized. Ideally, animals that have come through the fire should be provided soft bedding if possible.

Udders and teats

The cow's udder and teats are more susceptible to burns, not having a protective hide around them. Be sure to check udders and teats for signs of burns and inflammation, which can result in mastitis and non-productive quarters. Consider potentially culling any cows with udder issues, especially assessing the health of the teat openings.  

Skin burns

Burn wounds in affected cattle should be examined by a veterinarian; severely burned animals may need to be humanely euthanized. Minor burns may be treated with topical (surface) treatments, such as silver sulfadiazine or Desitin™ along with systemic antibiotics to minimize wound infection. A source for burn wounds around the head and neck area is the melting of plastic ear tags during conditions of high heat. Protect wounds from fly strike with insect repellents.


If calves survive the fire and smoke inhalation, they may not be able to nurse if their dam has burned, inflamed teats or mastitis. Taking time to ensure each calf is paired back up and is able to successfully nurse is an important step to take in assessing your herd post-fire. Calves unable to nurse will have a much slower growth rate and depending on age and stress could result in additional health issues.


The extent of burn damage to the sheaths and scrotums may not be evident for 4 to 6 weeks. As healing progresses, sheaths should be examined for excessive scaring that may block the opening. Breeding soundness exams should be prioritized before the breeding season for any bulls that are being retained. In some locations, trichomoniasis may be an issue when herds are co-mingled during the fire. Consult your vet about testing before the breeding season. 


Eyes irritated due to smoke and heat may show signs similar to pinkeye. Healing of these conditions will likely take longer than a typical pinkeye case, and in some cases, permanent blindness may result. Consult your vet about possible antibiotic treatment, being aware of any withdrawal times. 

While a great number of surviving cattle will not show any long-term effects of a wildfire, cattle producers should be aware of the potential problems down the road. Producers should always consult a local vet for help making treatment and culling decisions in the best interest of the animal and the operation. 


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