It’s that time of year again. The time of year when the weather is hot and humid (unless there is a bizarre cool snap like we experienced last week), the outdoors are to be avoided between the hours of noon and 4pm if at all possible, and social media is covered with posts about avoiding heat stroke and not leaving animals and children in hot cars. Now, if you are the type to forget your dog or your child in a hot vehicle in July, I cannot help you. But if you are the type to be concerned about the well being of your livestock in the hottest part of the year, then you have come to the right place.
First, I want to address a few inaccuracies I notice this time of year. First is the saying, “If you’re miserable, they are too! Bring your animals indoors!” Well, let me tell you. My horse, goats, chickens, pheasants, and livestock guardian dogs (one of which was recently sprayed by a skunk) are not coming inside. There is no room and, honestly, there is no need. Humans underestimate the ability of animals to cope with cold and hot weather, especially livestock species. These creatures are designed to live outdoors and are well equipped to deal with the weather in most circumstances as long as they are provided with a few basic needs. (We’ll get to that in a second.) With some exceptions (we’ll also get to that), you don’t need to worry too much about your animals unless you are having some extreme weather. Also, a human being miserable does not necessarily mean an animal is miserable. They are acclimated to the temperatures, whereas most humans are used to living in a climate controlled environment and it takes time for us to adjust to hot weather when we are used to living in air conditioned buildings and travelling in air conditioned cars.
I have also seen some strange claims about animals not drinking water. I’ve seen people say that chickens will not walk far for water, or that their goats refuse to drink and have to be fed hydration hay, and a myriad of other concerns. I’m not sure where these misconceptions develop, but if I had to guess I would say that people are checking on their animals frequently and never seeing them drink, thus assuming that they aren’t drinking at all. But I guarantee you that your animals will indeed drink water as long as it isn’t filthy, they know where it is, and it isn’t hot. Our free range chickens go all over the place for water. In fact, I have seen them come all the way to the house to drink from a dirty puddle by the faucet when they had their own clean water much closer to their living area. I seldom see the goats drinking water, but I know that they do; they would all have been dead long ago if they didn’t!
I want to address one more thing before we move on. People often say that horns are necessary for for livestock like goats, sheep, and cows to regulate their body temperatures. I could spend an entire post talking about why domesticated dairy animals should be disbudded, but I’ll focus on this one myth for now and save my soapbox for another day. While it may be true that horns give off some level of heat (I haven’t found hard evidence of that, personally), they are not necessary for the animal to regulate their body temperatures. The amount of heat they remove, if any, is obviously not so great that it is life-or-death or even necessary for comfort. If it were, young animals with small, not fully developed horns would suffer from heat stroke, naturally polled animals wouldn’t exist because the heat would have killed them off, and the thousands of livestock owners who disbud their animals would have stopped thirty years ago when they noticed them all dying off in hot weather. And if horns dispersed that much heat, it would make horned animals more susceptible to cold temperatures. At the end of the day, there is no evidence that polled or disbudded animals suffer more in the heat than horned.
Now, onto the rest of the post…
As I said above, your animals are almost certainly drinking water, even if you don’t see them. However, there are ways to encourage increased water consumption. And this is my first tip for helping your livestock beat the heat. First, be sure they have access to clean water. If someone has pooped in the water trough, or a frog has hopped inside to die, the animals are not going to want to drink it. It’s gross. Check water troughs not just for fullness, but also for cleanliness and replace if it has become contaminated. I like to put a glug of apple cider vinegar in troughs as well, which, among other benefits, helps inhibit the growth of algae.
Water should be kept cool as well. It doesn’t have to be cold, but it should not be hot. Water troughs should be placed in the shade if at all possible, and the deeper the trough the better. Water in a shallow dish will heat up much more than a deeper dish. I have found that metal seems to heat more than rubber as well, but to be fair that could be my imagination. If you can’t keep your water in the shade, replace it with cool water several times a day, especially during the middle of the day when the sun is highest and things are hottest. Alternatively, you can also add ice to the water to cool it even more.
Animals such as horses, goats, cattle, and sheep should always have species-appropriate minerals available at all times. For horses and cattle, this will probably be a mineral block or lick, although loose cattle minerals are available as well. For goats, it should be a good quality loose mineral. Sheep also need a loose mineral, but they should never be fed goat mineral as they need drastically lower amounts of copper than goats. Minerals are important to the overall health of livestock, but they also encourage water consumption due to their salt content.
Water for rabbits should always be available in a dish rather than the typical bottle with the metal spout, because otherwise they may not be able to get enough water. They should also have a mineral wheel to promote water consumption.
All animals should also have access to those other basics I alluded to earlier. Always, always be sure they have some sort of shade. They may baffle you and lay out under the sun anyway, but shade should always be accessible. The first year we had chickens, we didn’t think about them needing shade and we lost one to heat stroke because they all piled on each other in the tiny little spot of shade that was available. That is what you call a hard lesson learned. So provide your critters with adequate shade, be it from a tree, a building, or a tarp. It doesn’t matter what creates the shade as long as it is there to protect them, especially from the extra-hot noon and afternoon sun.
We already covered water, but it’s worth repeating; they must always have access to clean, cool water and appropriate minerals to encourage them to drink more of it.
Structures should be well ventilated and not crowded, especially if it is where they will be accessing shade. “Well ventilated but not drafty” tends to be a confusing phrase, so let me try to explain. Well ventilated means that air can pass freely through the shelter. Imagine how stuffy a room gets with no windows, AC, or fan going — that’s the opposite of what you want. However, animals should also be protected from being directly hit by slanting rain or winter wind. Deep three-sided shelters accomplish this well, as does a barn with high ceilings. Openings on either end that allow a breeze through are excellent as well. Just remember the basic rule of thumb: Air should pass through, but should not blow directly onto the animals. It is best in the summer for animals to have outside shade whenever possible, however, because that will always be cooler than enclosed shade (no matter how well ventilated).
Animals of any kind should not stressed during the hottest part of the day. Wait until the cooler hours of early morning or late evening to administer medicate, trim hooves, exercise, herd, etc unless it is an emergency.
When determining how much you need to intervene with your livestock in the heat, you should first consider the individual. Is the animal elderly? Is it in late pregnancy? What species is it, and what breed? Has it lived in your particular climate since birth, or did you transport the critter from the North down to the deep South when you moved last year? Does it have a thick coat, or has it not shed its winter coat? Did it take the heat well last year or did you notice it really struggling? All of these things can impact how well your particular livestock can handle the heat and humidity. As I said earlier, there are exceptions to my statement that animals are typically well equipped to handle heat. Let’s explore some of those exceptions.
First of all, older animals, animals with thick hair coats, or animals that are pregnant are going to struggle more than others. So will animals that are sick — especially if it’s a respiratory illness — and animals that are not used to the heat. If you’ve just moved from Massachusetts down to Florida, your animals are going to have just as difficult a time adjusting to the new climate as you will.
There are also some species that do not do as well with heat. Rabbits in particular are notorious for not tolerating heat and humidity. The breed of animal affects its heat-coping ability as well. If you don’t have animals yet, research which breeds will do best in your climate. If you already have animals, be aware of how heat and cold tolerant their breeds are. For example, Pineywoods and Florida Cracker cattle are both breeds that were developed in the Southeastern US and are perfectly adapted to the type of weather we have down here because of that. Other breeds in various species have been developed in Africa, particular parts of the US, or from Spanish stock, while other species were developed in colder climates in Europe. Thick coated, heavy bodied animals developed in colder climates will be better equipped for cold weather than hot. There are breeds in almost every species, from poultry to cows, that are better — or worse — for dealing with heat (and with cold). Dogs fall into this list as well. Many guardian breeds were developed to live in cold mountain climates, but some — like Anatolians — developed in warmer climates. (Our Pyrs have always done well with our hot southern weather, however.)
If you have livestock that fall under the “does not do well with heat” category, there are a number of extra things you can do to ease their struggle:
Fans – hang battery powered fans in shady locations for them to rest in front of if they choose.
Misters – in my experience, rabbits especially benefit from being misted with cool water (especially on the ears), but other species, including poultry, can enjoy it as well. The water does not even have to mist directly onto the animal to cool the air around them, either. Goats are probably the least likely to stand under misters as they hate getting wet, but I have heard of goats enjoying mist as well in extremely hot conditions.
Kiddie Pool – Dogs especially will love having a kiddie pool to cool off in. Our Pyrenees, Lakota, loves the water.
Ice Treats – Some dogs may enjoy licking treats out of a block of ice. Other species, like chickens, will grab treats out of a bucket of water with some ice in it. Or you can always add ice to their water source.
Dampen the Ground – Dampening the ground in the shade where your animals rest can help cool them more as well, but don’t wet it so much as to create a muddy mess. Depending on the species, they then might not lay there at all. Try a small patch first to gauge results before dampening the entire ground.
Frozen Water Bottle – Small animals like rabbits may benefit from a bottle of frozen water that they can lay against.
Know the Signs of Heat Distress:
Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your animals in the heat, aside from providing water and shade, is to know what it looks like when they are starting to have trouble dealing with the heat or developing heat exhaustion or stroke. Labored breathing, excessive panting, lethargy, high internal temperature, dry mouth, weakness, staggering, stupor, drooling, breathing through an open mouth (in species that usually don’t, like goats, horses, and cows), lack of appetite, tongue hanging out of mouth, inability to stand, and obvious discomfort are all general signs that animals are moving into heat stress. If not recognized early, it will develop into more severe symptoms such as coma, seizures, and death.
Each species is different and will express heat stress differently. Labored breathing is a universal symptom, as is weakness and related symptoms (lethargy, inability to stand, stupor, etc). I want to look briefly at a few different species and point out things unique to them:
Dogs: Bright red gums and tongue as well as dry, sticky mouth. Excessive panting.
Poultry: Wing spreading, to allow air to flow next to the body. Open mouthed, rapid, or gasping breathing. Wet droppings. In limited shade, poultry will pile on top of each other trying to get out of the sun and in turn overheat themselves even more.
Pigs: Muscle trembling, increased water intake, reduced pulse. Increased wallowing.
Cattle: More time spent standing. Restlessness. Drooling and foaming. May isolate themselves or group together. Breathing by pushing from flanks. May hold head down.
Goats: Goats are generally better able to handle heat than other livestock species, especially the breeds developed in hot climates. However, fiber goats are more susceptible than their short-haired relatives. Sheep are the same: hair sheep will handle heat better than wool sheep.
If an animal is showing signs of heat stress, act quickly to cool them. Do not shock their bodies by using extreme methods such as an ice water bath. Instead, use cool — but not ice cold — water to wet them. Start with a smaller area, such as the legs, and work your way up slowly.* Pay special attention to areas that are highly vascular, such as the inner legs (or ears for rabbits). You should move the animal to a cool, shaded location. If it is a small animal, bring it indoors. Ice packs can be held against vascular areas as well, after cool water has been applied. Water should be made available, with species-appropriate electrolytes if you have them. The not-too-cold rule applies here as well. If the animal can swallow but will not drink on its own, you can administer small amounts slowly with a drench gun or syringe. If the animal is very weak and cannot swallow, do not attempt to orally administer liquids. At this point you should seek veterinary assistance if you haven’t already, and they may provide fluids through a stomach tube, IV, or enema.
*Don’t spray a sheep’s woolen areas with water, as this will actually prevent them from cooling themselves.
Overall, your animals will probably cope with the heat well as long as they have their basic needs met, but some species do require a bit of extra precaution. And almost everyone can enjoy an extra cool treat now and then! Enjoy these summer months with peace of mind and happy, healthy livestock.
Outside Sources Consulted:
Disclaimer: I am sharing my personal experience and knowledge in this post to help others prevent and recognize heat stress in their livestock. However, this information is not meant to replace expert medical advice or assistance.