The western fire season begins in July for North America and runs through the first significant rainfall for the area. This timeline varies by climate and could be December for southern regions. Wildfire season brings increased stress and anxiety for residents in these areas, but did you know that it this season can wreak havoc on your livestock as well? Learn the signs of stress in cattle to look out for, and ways to minimize the long-term effects of wildfires on cattle with these management practices.

We reported on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in cattle back in 2017 after researchers found that wolf attacks and poor handling experiences had lasting effects on cattle. Wildfires have been found to have similar effects of stress on cattle. Handling cattle after they have been through a wildfire requires a greater degree of stockmanship, care, and understanding. Your cattle may be experiencing PTSD and more prone to flight than usual. This can create dangerous situations, and can lead to long-term issues handling cattle if mismanaged.

Here are our best practices to minimize the effects of stress on cattle following a wildfire:

After the Fire

Finding your cattle again after the wildfire is the first challenge. Once they have been located and brought home, it's important to get your cattle feed and water to build their nutritional levels back up. Cattle condition can deteriorate quickly without proper nutrition.

Have your veterinarian come check the herd as soon as possible once they are home. There are a variety of issues that can occur with the eyes, airway, lungs, skin, scrotum, udder, teats, and feet because of a wildfire. Cattle may also have injuries from running through fences or other escape routes. Ensure that the medical needs of your herd are met first. Schedule regular appointments following this initial visit, as some effects from the wildfire will take weeks or months to appear.

Next, check your fences to check for damage. You do not want cattle escaping again through a broken area in your fence. Remember that you will see signs of stress in cows for a long time following a wildfire, and they may exhibit unusual behavior.

PTSD Due to the Wildfire

Signs of PTSD and the effects of stress can vary based on the temperament of the animal and the degree of trauma. This is similar to what humans' experience. It is safe to assume that all cattle that experienced the wildfire will have some degree of PTSD. When the brain suffers from PTSD the cattle are at a heightened level of stress and this leads to poor performance - your cattle may eat less and have reduced pregnancy rates as a result.

Changes to Cattle Handling Practices

It is important to make some changes to your handling practices after a wildfire. The changes should start immediately when you head out to look for and bring the cattle back to your property. Here are some handling practices to adopt to work cattle safely:

  1. Review low-stress livestock handling methods. Cattle will default to the flight mode when experiencing post-traumatic stress. Stockmen and women should refresh their knowledge of low stress cattle handling procedures. Only the most experienced handlers should work cattle in the period following the wildfire. Inexperienced handlers could inadvertently make the situation worse, and may increase the likelihood of injury.
  2. Get adequate help. Traumatized cattle not only require experienced handlers, but also need additional handlers. Make sure you have enough help to safely process your cattle.
  3. Be cautious. Remember that the cattle are subject to adrenaline and can panic easily. Some animals may only exhibit increased nervousness, while others will aggressively try and escape situations where they feel trapped. This may include your cattle handling system and chute. Keep safety as your number one priority throughout and use more caution than in normal circumstances.
  4. Be patient. Move slowly and be patient with the animals. Remain calm and give the cattle extra time if they need it. One of the main principles of low stress cattle handling is to ask the cattle to do something instead of forcing it. Ask them and then give them enough time to determine that it is safe, and move in the direction you have asked. Consider acclimating the cattle to your handling system before working them for an easier transition.
  5. Incorporate routines where possible. You already had a routine for feeding cattle and working them through your handling system. Make sure you maintain as many routines as possible to lower the stress level in your animals. This is especially important when the veterinarian comes out to check the herd.
  6. Be aware of sensory stimuli. Cattle in a heightened state of awareness may smell the smoke from a still-burning wildfire and quickly panic. Be aware of wildfire activity and wind direction when you are working cattle. Sensitivity to noise will also increase after a wildfire as all senses are heightened due to stress. Minimize any extra noise when possible and look for other triggers that can be eliminated.
  7. Expand the flight zone. The flight zone of your cattle is larger after a wildfire or other traumatic event. Give them more space while working them.
  8. Make improvements to your handling system. Use animal science research and the principles of low stress handling to improve your cattle working system to ease stress in animals. Consider adding a chute with a sliding head gate, rubber floors, or gates and alleys with improved visibility and decreased noise. These small changes can dramatically reduce the amount of stress cattle experience.

Wildfires have devastating effects on the people, land, and animals in their path. While we hope that you never have to experience a wildfire, we know that cattle handlers who do face a new set of challenges. The negative impacts of the wildfire are felt for weeks and months on cattle health and can last longer in their behavior.

Understand that cattle are suffering from PTSD due to the wildfire. Adapting and enhancing low-stress cattle handling practices to minimize the trauma creates a safer and less stressful situation for cattle and handlers moving forward.

What do wolf attacks and cattle chutes have in common?

How does extreme weather impact cattle health?

6 Ways to Stay Safe While Handling Cattle
Be Aware of Livestock Trauma After a Wildfire
Low Stress Cattle Handling: The Basics
Wildfire Aftermath: Beef Cattle Health Concerns
Wildfire Damage to Cattle May be More Than The Eye Can See
Wolf Attacks Have Long-Term Impact on Cowherd

About the Author

Dana Charban, Manager of Content Strategies and Journalist for Arrowquip, catching black cow in Q-Catch 86 Series cattle chute

Dana Charban

As a small town girl from rural Manitoba, Dana Charban grew up around agriculture and farming her en...

More Information on Dana Charban
Email Dana Charban: