Assessing horses after bushfires

Re-entering burned areas

Care must be taken to assess whether a recently burnt area is suitable for horses. There may be hot spots that could flare up without warning or a contaminated water supply. And partially burned structures and trees may be unstable and suddenly fall over.

Make sure the fencing is secure and the ground area is no longer warm. Check for ash pit areas where root systems have burned underground, downed power lines and dangerous debris before turning horses out into a burned paddock.

Initial assessment

As soon as it is safe, check your horses for burns and other injuries to see whether veterinary attention is required.

It is important that horses are regularly rechecked after the initial assessment to ensure that:

  • symptoms that arise a few days or weeks after the fire are adequately treated
  • the physical environment changed by the fire continues to meet the horses needs, that is, there is still adequate uncontaminated water, shelter, fencing, feed and unburnt cool and soft ground available for the horse.

First aid

Department animal health staff, RSPCA, local councils and local vets will all be working to assist animals affected by the fires.

They will be working under emergency circumstances and access and communications may be disrupted so expect some delay before help arrives. You must be prepared to monitor the progress of your horses and to administer appropriate first aid while you are waiting for professional advice.

Possible problems

Horses commonly suffer facial burns from running through fire fronts. Other potential injuries include:

  • burns to other areas of the body including eyelids
  • smoke inhalation
  • hoof damage from standing on hot ground
  • eye injuries from particulates in the air.

It is also important to check for other injuries sustained during the fire such as lacerations from running into fences. Along with specific medical care and attention, you should attend to all your horses needs including adequate shade, water and feed.

The nature and extent of the injuries sustained can vary widely between animals in the same group, depending on the nature of the fire and the degree of exposure. Some may be more severely burned than others. Situations which may warrant emergency destruction on humane grounds include:

  • severe burns to greater than 50 per cent of the body surface with severe charring of limbs, muscles or facial tissues
  • animals suffering from severe smoke or flame inhalation resulting in respiratory distress, as shown by facial burns, laboured breathing, frothing at the mouth and nose, and coughing
  • animals which are down and unable to rise due to injuries or burns sustained during the fire.

If an insured horse has to be destroyed, make sure the insurance company is notified as soon as is practicable.

Burns

In the immediate post bushfire period, it is essential to assess your horse for injuries, and obtain veterinary advice and treatment as soon as possible.

Skin burns produce severe inflammation, indicated by heat, pain and swelling. Immediate first aid must be anti-inflammatory, such as cold water delivered by a hose or gently sponging if you still have access to a water supply.

Once the immediate needs of the horse have been met, attention then turns to long term care and management of your horse's welfare.

Horses with quite severe burns will require intensive treatment that is likely to be time consuming, very costly and painful for the animal. Your veterinarian is best placed to give you advice on how to treat injuries which require ongoing care. Burn wounds require effective management to reduce scarring where possible and to achieve the best outcomes for your horse.

It is difficult to provide generic advice on effective strategies. It very much depends on the individual circumstances of the wound including the degree of the burn, the extent of the burn and the anatomical location of the burn. Veterinary advice must be sought to recommend appropriate long term treatment options.

Fly protection is recommended, but do not spray fly repellent onto affected burns areas.

It is important to keep your horse comfortable and well-hydrated to assist with its recuperation.

Smoke inhalation

A common cause of death in fires and in the days afterward is complications from smoke inhalation.

Particulates from smoke tend to be very small, enabling them to reach the deepest airways within the lung. Severe smoke inhalation can cause delayed lung damage, which may not be immediately obvious. Horses may appear normal after the fire but in 3 to 4 hours can become anxious with rapid, sometimes laboured breathing and an elevated heart rate.

Particulates can also alter the immune system and reduce the ability of the lungs to remove foreign materials, such as pollen and bacteria, to which horses are normally exposed.

If smoke remains in the air, the effects of smoke particulates in the lungs may not be obvious for a number of weeks. Limit exercise when smoke is visible and provide plenty of fresh water. Horses that display signs of reduced lung function, higher than normal body temperature or burns around the eyes, singeing of the mane and forelock, muzzle burns or soot stained discharge from the nose need urgent veterinary treatment.

Hoof damage

An immediate threat to horses left in burnt properties is damage to hooves.

Prolonged exposure to hot ground will cause a low grade overheating that can develop into heat induced laminitis. The prognosis for horses suffering this condition will be extremely poor. It is important to get the horse off hot burnt ground as quickly as possible.

If your horse displays signs of lameness in the days after a fire consult a veterinarian immediately for advice on treatment.

Nutrition

The care and management of your horse is likely to be significantly changed as a result of a bushfire.

One important consideration is diet. Bushfires can have a devastating effect on pasture, which is the main source of food for most horses in rural areas.

In non-emergency situations, good quality pastures can provide the food requirements for most horses, except those in work and lactating mares. However, after a bushfire, feed may have to be supplemented to provide the necessary nutritional requirements.

This is especially important for horses that may have suffered some degree of burn injuries. Horses with these injuries have increased energy requirements, and in particular, increased protein requirements. Supplementary feeding may be required for up to 12 months after the fire has passed.

Temporary relocation of horses to areas unaffected by fire should be considered.

Roughage (fibrous feed such as hay and chaff) should continue to form a significant part of the horse's diet, to provide sufficient bulk and fibre to enable the digestive system to function normally. Horses need at least 1 per cent of their body weight in roughage daily. Good quality pasture hay is an excellent source of fibre.

It is important to introduce new feeds gradually into a horse's diet. Quick changes in diet are not recommended. However, in the case of pasture depletion due to bushfires, circumstances may require that horses are introduced to new feeds more quickly than they would under usual conditions. If this is the case, it is recommended that horses are fed small meals more frequently rather than one or two large meals a day. This will assist with digestion and allow the horse to adapt to the new feed.

It is important to only feed good quality feed and to discard mouldy produce. Horses with burns around their muzzle may require special attention with their feeding as it may be painful for them to eat hay. Feeding chaff and processed feed in this instance may be appropriate.

Produce merchants are able to provide specific advice on the energy content of processed feeds. This information is also available on product labels. It is recommended that horse owners take advice on energy requirements and follow the directions on the feed label.

It is important that where horses undergo a dramatic change in their diet over a sudden period, that their condition be monitored closely to ensure that they are adapting to the new diet. Colic is a common problem that occurs when diets are changed too quickly. Owners should be aware of the symptoms of colic which include loss of appetite, restlessness and excessive rolling.

Owners should contact their vet immediately if they suspect colic. Your vet will also be able to advise on more specific aspects of nutrition and general care for your horse in the aftermath of a bushfire.

More information

Page last updated: 07 Feb 2021