Published online by Cambridge University Press: 14 May 2010
Environmentally induced periods of heat stress decrease productivity with devastating economic consequences to global animal agriculture. Heat stress can be defined as a physiological condition when the core body temperature of a given species exceeds its range specified for normal activity, which results from a total heat load (internal production and environment) exceeding the capacity for heat dissipation and this prompts physiological and behavioral responses to reduce the strain. The ability of ruminants to regulate body temperature is species- and breed-dependent. Dairy breeds are typically more sensitive to heat stress than meat breeds, and higher-producing animals are more susceptible to heat stress because they generate more metabolic heat. During heat stress, ruminants, like other homeothermic animals, increase avenues of heat loss and reduce heat production in an attempt to maintain euthermia. The immediate responses to heat load are increased respiration rates, decreased feed intake and increased water intake. Acclimatization is a process by which animals adapt to environmental conditions and engage behavioral, hormonal and metabolic changes that are characteristics of either acclimatory homeostasis or homeorhetic mechanisms used by the animals to survive in a new ‘physiological state’. For example, alterations in the hormonal profile are mainly characterized by a decline and increase in anabolic and catabolic hormones, respectively. The response to heat load and the heat-induced change in homeorhetic modifiers alters post-absorptive energy, lipid and protein metabolism, impairs liver function, causes oxidative stress, jeopardizes the immune response and decreases reproductive performance. These physiological modifications alter nutrient partitioning and may prevent heat-stressed lactating cows from recruiting glucose-sparing mechanisms (despite the reduced nutrient intake). This might explain, in large part, why decreased feed intake only accounts for a minor portion of the reduced milk yield from environmentally induced hyperthermic cows. How these metabolic changes are initiated and regulated is not known. It also remains unclear how these changes differ between short-term v. long-term heat acclimation to impact animal productivity and well-being. A better understanding of the adaptations enlisted by ruminants during heat stress is necessary to enhance the likelihood of developing strategies to simultaneously improve heat tolerance and increase productivity.