Study: Vet Care Required for Horses Evacuated to Shelters During Wildfires
You might have seen video coverage of them online or during your nightly news—livestock and pets with their coats or feathers singed and burnt flesh pink and oozing. Fowl and small ruminants are at greatest risk of requiring veterinary care for burn wounds like these, said Claudia Sonder, DVM, of Napa Valley Equine. That isn’t the likely case, however, for horses evacuated to shelters, who are instead more likely to sustain lacerations during evacuation or colic soon after.

“Horses tend to be evacuated much earlier during fires,” she said, explaining that chickens, sheep, and goats are more difficult to gather quickly and are more likely to be left behind in the path of fast-moving and unpredictable flames.

To better understand the veterinary care sheltered horses need and improve future equine veterinary response during wildfires, the Northern California Association of Equine Practitioners (NCAEP) partnered with researchers at the University of California, Davis (UC-Davis) to analyze medical record data of sheltered horses from three large-scale wildfire events that took place in the state during the 2020 season. Sonder, who serves as the NCAEP emergency response committee chair and president of the Napa Community Animal Response Team, presented the study findings during the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Convention, held Dec. 4-8, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Analyzing the Numbers

The year 2020 “was an incredible wildfire season in California,” Sonder said. The state saw 4.2 million acres burn in more than 10,000 fires. In response, the NCAEP Disaster Response Trailer and its volunteer team deployed three times, spending 52 days in the field caring for evacuated and sheltered horses. Each trailer deployment averaged 17 days. Veterinarians and tech worked in pairs, with a 50:1 evacuated-horse-to-care-team ratio.

During those deployments, volunteer veterinarians and vet techs used a standardized veterinary medical form developed by UC-Davis. The researchers then analyzed data from those forms. They found that 20% of horses (54 of 271) coming into the shelters required some sort of veterinary treatment, and horses requiring care stayed on the “treatment board” (a tool used to track active patients) for 4.3 days on average. The horse injuries and conditions broke down as follows:

  • 34% nonburn wounds and lacerations;
  • 26% gastrointestinal (GI) disturbances (e.g., colic, poor manure output);
  • 16% acute or chronic lameness (significant enough to require treatment at the shelter);
  • 15% ocular issues (including preexisting parasitic habronema infections); and
  • 9% other.

Treatment in the evacuation shelter resulted in 88 treatment codes, which Sonder said can help inform veterinarians of what medications and supplies they might need in these situations. Of those horses requiring treatment:

  • 37% needed non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS such as bute and banamine);
  • 35% received nonburn wound care;
  • 31% received GI treatment (e.g., hydrated meals, fluids delivered via nasal-gastric tube);
  • 8% required antibiotics;
  • 8% received eye medications;
  • 5% received intravenous fluids;
  • 4% were referred for tertiary care; and
  • 8% were euthanized.

“As you can see, burn care was not a common component of equine shelter duty,” said Sonder. She added the caveat that—while rare—burn wounds occur in horses, and when they do, they’re often serious.

The researchers found evacuation conditions affected the types of injuries associated with specific events. Evacuations that happened at night and in high-wind conditions typical of wildfires resulted in more lacerations that required veterinary care. “And when it’s 102 degrees Fahrenheit and 7% humidity, those are the times we’re going to see colics,” she said. “So you have to be able to adjust to whatever Mother Nature is handing you that day.”

Practical Take-Homes for Veterinarians

Sonders and her research team approached analyzing this data with the goal of improving emergency response. She also believes the data offers clarity for client education. For example, wound prevention can happen by teaching horses to load and designating emergency trailer loading areas with ample lighting and away from injury-causing obstacles. Knowing GI issues are common in shelters, veterinarians can encourage owners to have feed, forage, and medications ready to go on red-flag fire days. And people who own older, geriatric horses or ones who otherwise won’t do well in the small pens emergency shelters offer can have plans to evacuate their animals to more suitable private locations.