Tips for caring for animals in hot, dry conditions

Victoria is facing unseasonal heat, drought conditions and critically low water levels. Being exposed to extreme heat and low water resources causes significant stress in livestock, and in some cases, can result in their death.

 Sadly, RSPCA Victoria has seen one of the biggest spikes in horse welfare concerns in its 145 year history. The harshness of these conditions can catch people unaware and leave animals vulnerable, so be prepared. All animal owners have a responsibility to ensure regular supervision and supply of water, feed and shelter. This doesn’t just apply to mainstream farmers. Small area and hobby farmers as well as owners of domestic animals have the same responsibilities to put in place plans around supplying adequate water and food supplies at all times, and to have a realistic idea of the costs involved and how these can be managed.

 If you’re struggling to care for your horses or other livestock on your property our advice is to make arrangements for someone else to care for them on their property, or if this is not possible then sale should be considered.
Whether it’s through its veterinary practices, regional inspectors, online or via telephone, RSPCA Victoria, along with Victorian Government staff, are always on hand to offer expert advice on animal welfare.

 Comprehensive information around caring for your livestock in harsh conditions can be found on the Agriculture Victoria website or call them on 186 136 for further advice. Download a pdf of their 2016 Guide on the support services available in Victoria here.

General Tips for all Livestock:

1. Adequate water

This may sound obvious, but make sure you have adequate water to last a hot spell. 
• Keep an eye on dams and the level of evaporation. Dry dams with exposed mud run the risk of animals getting stuck.
• Evaporation can increase salinity in some water. All livestock can be affected by salt poisoning if fresh water is withheld for longer than 24 hours. Pregnant or lactating stock, young animals or animals subjected to heavy heat stress or water loss are most at risk of salt poisoning as a result of excessively saline water. 
• Monitor dams for blue-green algae as lower water levels, silt and animal waste can promote algae blooms Make sure the location of water is made familiar to animals before days of extreme heat. Heat stress can have a significant effect on production and reproduction so it is important that shelter and a plentiful supply of cool water are available.

2. Suitable shelter

The shelter should protect the animals from the sun, allow for the cooling effect of wind and be large enough for all animals to be able to lie down. Housing for intensively housed animals such as poultry and pigs should be fitted with fans that ensure adequate airflow to all animals. Sprinkler systems or spray units are also recommended to aid cooling during extreme temperatures.

3. Good feed

Feed digestion causes heat production which will contribute to the animal’s heat load, so it is important to provide animals with high quality feed to maintain nutrient intake without excessive heat production. Feed early morning or in the evening when temperatures are lower.

4. Transport

Should you have to move livestock during extreme heat:
• Pre-determine your route. 
• Mark a map with places of shade and water availability.
• Transport the animals during the cooler hours of the day
• If it’s necessary to stop, park the vehicle in the shade and at right angles to the wind direction to improve wind flow between animals during hot weather

5. How to identify heat stress

General signs include: 
• Panting 
• Increased respiration rate 
• Increased water intake 
• Loss of appetite 
• Listless/lethargy 
• Increased salivation

6. Treating heat stress

Actions you can take: 
• Move them to the shade immediately, preferably somewhere with a breeze 
• Offer plenty of cool clean water, but encourage them to drink small amounts often 
• Spray them with cool water, especially on the legs and feet, or stand them in water 
• Lay wet towels over them 
• Increase air movement around them using fans, ventilation, or wind movement 
• Allow enough room for animals room to lie down If you animals continue to show signs of heat stress, contact your local veterinarian.

Breed specific tips:


Horse can drink about 25 -30 litres of water during hot weather however this can increase to 50 litres in hot weather. 

Water will evaporate from a dam and even more so during drought conditions, take make sure you take this into account. 

The most frequent water quality problem that occurs during drought is high levels of salt, so it is important you monitor the salt levels frequently. 

When feeding horses during drought it is important to provide all the roughage they need to maintain a healthy gut. When pastures dry up, horses don’t graze, but seek shade and wait for feeding time which can put them at risk of colic. Many horses do not get enough roughage in their diet, especially during drought. As a good rule of thumb, horses need to consume between 1.5% and 2.5% of their bodyweight in feed per day (that’s the feed’s dry matter content, not counting the moisture present). The minimum amount of roughage fed is 1% of bodyweight. A horse at rest should consume 80-100% of its daily intake as roughage.


Pigs are highly susceptible to heat stress, sunburn and are unable to sweat, so it is important that whenever the temperature is above 25°C that outdoor pigs have: 
• Sufficient water 
• Shelter so they are not exposed to direct sunlight 
• Mud hole areas in which they can seek respite


Poultry should not be wet down unless there is a breeze to aid the cooling process.


Confinement feeding is typically applied to sheep and aims to promote animal health and welfare while preserving ground cover and land condition across the majority of the property. This is achieved by confining livestock to a small area where they are fed a total ration. Successful confinement feeding relies on good site selection, an appropriate mob size and stocking density and the provision of appropriate nutrition


In a drought early weaning is a must. Calves, as young as one- two months of age, should be fed some true vegetable protein meal or preferably milk powder. It is recommended that calves are not weaned until three months unless absolutely necessary. Most calves over three months will survive on grain plus lucerne hay or molasses plus vegetable protein meal diets.

For more information on caring for livestock in drought conditions visit Or call 136 186
Drought Feeding & Management for Horses, David Nash, Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, September 1999.