In the April issue, Fred Gingrich wrote an excellent piece on alleviating cattle pain. At the conclusion of his article, he touched on an essential topic. This topic is so important because we only have one chance to get it right. And the general public draws broad conclusions based on how timely we perform this topic, which happens to be euthanasia. Had I put the word euthanasia in the title, you may not have read this column. But now that you are here, read on.

Who should perform?

Understand that most people who work with domesticated livestock operations will encounter situations where treatment ends unfavorably. However, not all people are equally capable of performing euthanasia. Carefully consider the very few who can perform this task after proper training. 

Methods to use

Acceptable methods of euthanasia do vary from species to species. The following are the only three methods that may be used in cattle:

  1. Physical disruption of brain activity caused by direct destruction of brain tissue. For example, a gunshot or penetrating captive bolt. 
  2. Drugs that directly depress the central nervous system (anesthetics or barbiturates) and induce death by limiting oxygen distribution. 
  3. Agents that induce unconsciousness followed by mechanisms that limit oxygen distribution (narcotics followed by exsanguinations — the action or process of draining or losing blood).  

When should it be performed?

When cattle become debilitated, disabled or injured, there are three options available: treatment, slaughter or euthanasia. Take note that “doing nothing” is not an option. Use the following criteria to make your decision: 

  • What is the pain and distress level of the animal? 
  • What is the likelihood of recovery? 
  • What is the ability of the animal to get feed and water? 
  • What medications were used on the animal? 
  • What is the drug withdrawal time if applicable? 
  • What are the economics of the situation?
  • What is the potential for condemnation if the animal goes to slaughter? 
  • What diagnostic information might be needed?

How should it be performed?

Consider these points when deciding how to perform euthanasia:

  • Human safety. This is the most important consideration. Do not expect an employee to perform euthanasia with a firearm if he or she has never used one before. 
  • Animal welfare. Any method should produce a quick and painless death. The correct load or dosage needs to be used. Get specific directions from your veterinarian. 
  • Restraint needed. This is not a “yes” or “no” option, but rather what type of restraint to use. Be mindful of ricochet. 
  • Practicality. Not all methods are practical in certain situations. Also, not all people have access to barbiturates or can apply 2.5 amps across the animal’s brain (120-volt electrical cords are not sufficient). 
  • Skill. Some techniques, like the captive bolt, require some skill and training.  Individuals should be designated and trained. 
  • Cost. Some methods are more costly than others. Upfront cost may be great, but continued use is inexpensive. 
  • Aesthetics. Certain techniques may appear more pleasing to the untrained eye than others. 
  • Diagnostics. Some methods may destroy tissues needed to confirm diagnosis. For example, the brain must be preserved in rabies suspects.

Your veterinarian is skillfully trained in euthanasia and can help develop a euthanasia plan of action. He or she can also help you access the following resource located on the American Association of Bovine Practitioners Web site: “Practical Euthanasia of Cattle – Considerations for the Producer, Livestock Market Operator, Livestock Transporter and Veterinarian” for more information.

Angela M. Daniels is a veterinarian with Circle H Headquarters LLC, a dairy and swine veterinary practice, food safety laboratory and DHIA milk-testing and contract research organization in Dalhart, Texas.