Beating the heat: Livestock and pets need special attention during hot weather

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cattle pasture
Cattle on pasture

SALEM, Ohio — With high temperatures expected to continue into August, it’s a good idea for producers and pet owners alike to review their cooling systems, and be sure their animals stay healthy during this prolonged period of heat.

According to information provided by Ohio State University Extension, heat stress can negatively affect diet and growth in livestock, breeding, fetal growth and, in lactating cattle, it can reduce milk production.

The most severe cases can be deadly. Each year, heat costs U.S. producers about $1.7-$2.4 billion, according to a 2014 fact sheet from Ohio State. The cost to dairy is about $897 million, the beef industry loses $370 million, and the swine industry loses about $300 million.

Steps to take

Summer heat can be abated in a number of ways, some that may seem obvious, but perhaps worth reviewing.

Clean, cool drinking water

Make sure the animal has access to water throughout the day, and that it is cool. Water running through above-ground lines, or collected in a holding tank can heat up, due to sun and air exposure. Consider running lines through the cover of tall grass, or under fences, where they’ll be shaded.

Also, make sure that “automatic” waterers and supply sources such as springs or water tanks are functioning and producing adequate flow. Water requirements in cattle can more than double during the hottest days, putting pressure on systems that would otherwise function appropriately.

Ventilation

Fans and sprinkling systems can make a significant difference, especially for livestock kept indoors. Consider the entire flow of air through your building, and be sure the air being brought in is truly cooler, and drier, than the air you’re displacing.

Sprinklers can help cool livestock, if used appropriately. For dairy cattle, the nozzles should deliver .5 gallons per minute, at 20-40 psi. The goal is to wet the hair coat of the cows, without water running down and draining off the udder.

Limit moving activities

Moving livestock, especially cattle, from one place to another can easily excite their heart rate and produce additional body heat. If you have to move them, do it in the early morning or evening hours, during the coolest part of the day.

For dairy cattle, limit the amount of time the cows spend in the holding pen, and be sure that pens are not over-crowded, which produces more body heat.

Graziers should consider moving cows between pastures more rapidly, because taller grass usually provides a cooler surface than short-grazed pastures. Graziers should also consider moving cattle to a different pasture in the evening, to avoid the “heat of fermentation” that usually happens at night, and early morning.

Provide shade

Shelter from direct sunlight can be one of the most important steps, and not only protects the animal, but the surfaces around him. Even in pastures, trees and other areas of shade can make a big difference.

Also, be sure your cattle are free from flies and other distractions. The fewer stressors, the less energy the animal will spend trying to protect itself.

Managing feed intake

The amount of feed that livestock eat in hot weather can decline, and because they are drinking more water and urinating more, mineral deficiencies can be an issue. Make sure your animal’s diet is appropriate for the temperature, and for cattle, free-choice mineral salt should be provided in an accessible location.

Warning signs

Although heat should be mitigated before these signs appear, some signs of heat stress include animals that are not eating, or that are lying down for unusual lengths of time.

Most cattle will stand when exposed to heat, to expose more of their body to the air, to dissipate the heat.

Open-mouth, labored breathing are also signs of stress in livestock.

Emergency management

During emergency situations, cattle and some other livestock can be wetted down, and sometimes the roof of the building can also be wetted. Veterinary care should also be sought, as well as a professional review of your farm’s cooling system, or cooling strategy.

Caring for pets

Your dogs, cats and other pets also need special attention during extreme heat. The fur coat that covers these animals prevents them from sweating, so extra care is needed.

Avoid direct exposure whenever possible, especially leaving your pet inside an unattended vehicle. On an 85-degree day, the inside temperature can exceed 100 degrees in only 10 minutes.

Like humans, dogs and cats are also at risk for sunburn, especially lighter-colored pets. Pet-friendly sunblock can be applied, but human sunscreens should not be applied, because they are toxic if ingested.

Outdoor pets should be brought indoors, or moved to a shaded place. The water in their bowls can heat up especially fast, becoming undrinkable.

Signs of heat stroke in pets include heavier-than-normal panting, and unusual agitation or distress. The pet may have difficulty breathing and increased drooling. If this happens, cool your pet by covering him with wet towels, or give him a bath in cool water (not ice water). Veterinary care should be sought.

(Sources: Managing Dairy Cows During Heat Stress, OSU Extension, 2014,; Heat Stress and Beef Cattle, OSU Beef Cattle Letter, 2014; Abate Animal Heat Stress in Hot Weather, OSU Extension; John Grimes, OSU Extension beef coordinator; Ohio Veterinary Medical Association, pet safety tips.)

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Chris Kick served Farm and Dairy's readership as a reporter for nearly a decade before accepting a job at Iowa State University Extension. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University.

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