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Euthanasia: Beyond the Loss of an Animal

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September 2016

A mentor told me early on in my career that “if I was going to deal with livestock, I was going deal with dead stock as well.” At face value, this statement seems obvious:  there will be herd management situations that inevitably involve loss. Sometimes that loss will be “natural” and unpredictable like a stillborn calf or lightning strikes. Other times, managers will have to make the decision to end an animal’s life. Those of us that have worked with livestock long enough understand and accept the responsibility. It is most certainly our duty to end an animal’s life when disease or injury prevent an animal from performing its daily functions or from enjoying the continuation of life.

Beyond the literal interpretation of my opening statement, it is also important to recognize the subtext carried. Managers have to simultaneously “deal with dead stock” psychologically. That is a highly personal task and often can be much harder for folks to tackle and overcome. Interpretation of an animal’s best interests can be quite subjective in some situations. Ethical, cultural, medical, and economical considerations all enter into the decision making process, and can have opposing forces, leading to internal turmoil for the decision maker. Unfortunately, this psychological reality can slow down or derail the appropriate management of a bad situation.

Development of appropriate management protocols with your herd veterinarian should occur before a situation arises on the farm or ranch. First and foremost, appropriate culling strategies should be implemented. Examples of this would be heifer breeding soundness exams, appropriate genetic selection of breeding bulls, mouthing cows annually, pregnancy determination and staging, or buying preconditioned calves. Removing animals from the herd that have a higher risk of developing life- or welfare-threatening conditions will significantly decrease the likelihood of on-farm euthanasia. Unfortunately, there is no way to predict or prevent all instances of euthanasia in a beef herd. Therefore, sitting down with your vet to discuss appropriate on-farm health protocols is a must. Development of treatment protocols and decision-making matrices help managers and employees make informed decisions on how long is appropriate to manage a case with and without veterinary oversight, and most certainly ease the mental struggle over when is appropriate to put an animal down. Emergency situations like broken legs or severe dystocias always warrant immediate veterinary involvement and/or humane euthanasia. A written plan takes the “maybe” out of the equation and can expedite the appropriate management of a problem.

The American Veterinary Medical Association defines the duties of an individual performing euthanasia as:

  1. inducting death in a manner that is in accordance with the animal’s interests and/or […] welfare and
  2. using techniques that induce rapid, painless, and distress-free death.

When it comes to cattle, this either involves heavy sedation in combination with intravenous chemical overdose or penetrating disruption of brain tissue. Chemical euthanasia either involves controlled drugs such as pentobarbital or high concentration solutions of salts in combination with sedatives. Intravenous administrations of salt solutions should never be used without the animal being heavily sedated as they can cause severe stress before death in an aware animal. Use of controlled substances requires veterinary involvement. Immediate disposal of the carcass via rendering or burial greater than 3 feet deep is required due to drug residues in the carcass posing an environmental risk to scavenging wildlife. If an endangered or protected animal were to feed on the carcass, the veterinarian involved could face severe fines and loss of licensure.

Given cost and residue potentials, most cattle will be euthanized via gunshot. When performed correctly, this method of euthanasia results in rapid loss of consciousness, does not induce physiological stress prior to death, and is painless for the animal. Concerns over operator safety are the only drawbacks to utilization. Selecting firearms with an appropriate muzzle energy and bullet type are critical for success. For animals less than 400 pounds (calves less than 3-4 months old), 300 ft-lb of force is a minimum. For example, a .40 Smith and Wesson handgun is capable of producing 408 ft-lbs of muzzle energy, while a .357 Magnum produces 557 ft-lb. For animals weighing over 400 pounds, a muzzle energy of greater than 1000 ft-lb is required. Obviously, most handguns will be unable to deliver this kind of power. .223 Remington rifles produce 1296 ft-lbs and 30-06 Springfield rifles produce 2841 ft-lb. Muzzle energies should not be confused with measurements of velocity (ft-sec), and appropriate ballistics charts should be consulted when determining the appropriateness of firearm selection for euthanasia. Beyond general weight categories, attention should be paid to age and gender of the animal requiring euthanasia. Older animals will have more solid skull bones, and require higher muzzle energy guns. Additionally, intact male animals have significantly thicker skulls than castrated males or females. .22 rifles will not result in appropriate euthanasia for most mature cows, and should never be used to euthanize bulls. Solid point bullets should be used for humane euthanasia as they are capable of penetrating the skull case and will cause sufficient damage to the brain to induce rapid death. Hollow-points are not acceptable, and full metal jacket bullets will often over penetrate creating safety issues for the operator. Shotguns (12, 16, 20, and .410) will produce adequate muzzle energy for mature animals, but care should be taken when using 4, 5, or 6 shot shells from an operator safety standpoint. Firearms should be held at least 1-2 feet from the animal’s head before firing to prevent barrel explosions and the gun should be aimed so that the bullet will enter the skull perpendicular to the flat surface of the animal’s face. The desired target for cattle is easily determined using facial landmarks. Physical or imaginary lines should be drawn from one side of the animal’s poll to the outside corner of the eye on the opposite side of the head. The point where lines cross indicates proper site for bullet entry, which should roughly be located between the animal’s ears. Bullets placed between the animal’s eyes will not damage the brain and the animal will not die quickly, or possibly at all.

Humane euthanasia prevents the suffering of an ill or injured animal that does not have a reasonable chance of recovering to a normal life, or would have to endure severe hardship in order to recover. It does not necessarily, however, end or prevent the emotional or psychological stress experienced by the owner or manager. I often hear veterinarians and producers describe themselves as “hardened” or “calloused” when it comes to making euthanasia calls. Psychological detachment is a protection mechanism for our mental health, but it does not mean that we are unaffected by having to make these decisions. While one euthanasia of a sick animal may not be overly psychologically traumatic for a healthy person, the experience could be a tipping point for one that has been under chronic mental stress. Let me share some serious facts about the reality of mental health in our industry. 1.3% of veterinarians have attempted suicide according to an AVMA report released in 2015, while 1 in 6 have considered it. While this statistic sounds high to me, the authors concluded that the percentage would likely be higher if vets weren’t so good at ending life due to their access to lethal drugs. Similar reports exist for the agricultural community: over an eighteen year study period, the national suicide rate among farmers was 3.8% – a rate higher than the national average. Farmers and ranchers experience stress on a daily basis. However, during times of exceptional stress (such as crop failure, family medical issues, or economic hardship) farmers are at a significantly elevated risk of injury and/or suicide when compared to the average American. In situations where euthanasia is elected, there are more often than not feelings of remorse and guilt which can acutely and sometimes dramatically compound chronic stress or anxiety. The physical performance of euthanasia can also be more traumatic than one expects, especially if they have been devoted to tending the animal for a period of time. I rarely experience clients that did not truly care for their stock, and almost certainly experience some level of emotional effect due to euthanasia (whether they will admit it or not).

Euthanasia is not the simple act of ending an animal’s life. Whether it be a pet or production animal, we must treat the situation with respect and dignity. Euthanasia has complex and far-reaching consequences before, during, and after the actual act. The practice of euthanasia requires appropriate training and consideration, and it is vitally important to pay attention to these details. More important, however, are the ramifications of the act. While shooting one down cow may not seem so bad to the experienced cattleperson, it could be the breaking point that pushes a stressed individual over the edge. We must also be cognizant that there is the potential in our industry where the emergency euthanasia of animals en masse can occur, and those situations would most certainly be overtly psychologically damaging to the involved individuals. Situations such as an overturned loaded stock trailer, an accidental toxicity event in a pastured group of cattle, or a foreign animal disease outbreak are potential realities that we must all be prepared for.

An individual’s suicide is far too often the individual’s loudest call for help, and help comes from a supportive community. If you or someone you know/love exhibits any symptoms (isolation, depression, anxiety, insomnia, dramatic changes in attitude, rapid mood swings) do not wait to ask for or offer help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Suicide affects the entire community, especially a community as tight-knit and concentrated as the US agricultural community.