The euthanasia treatment protocol

I was driving by a dairy farm a few weeks ago and saw a dead cow lying outside ready to be disposed. I wondered what the average consumer would think if he or she saw the dead cow. It would likely evoke a different response than those of us who work with dairy farms every day.

Unfortunately, death does occur on dairy farms and we all need to be careful not to become "desensitized" to death on dairy farms.

The National Animal Health Monitoring surveys estimate the death loss of adult cows on dairy farms to be 5 percent, with pre-weaning heifer deaths averaging 7.8 percent and post-weaning heifer losses at 1.8 percent.

Death of an animal can be a time to review what went wrong. Do you evaluate your death rate in adults and heifers with your veterinarian? Death can be seen as a treatment failure, a problem with not intervening with treatment soon enough or a problem with not euthanizing the animal when she is suffering and instead letting her die an inhumane death. Consumers who have pets understand euthanasia is a humane choice for a suffering animal. Unfortunately, euthanasia is not practiced often enough or in a proper manner on many dairy farms.

Many farms, regardless of size, have protocols for all sorts of things we do to cows on a daily basis. Breeding, treating with medications, milking routines, and managing calving problems are examples of common protocols. Proper humane euthanasia is often a protocol that is overlooked, but it is one that is very important to the consuming public. Every farm should work with their veterinarian to develop a proper Euthanasia Protocol and evaluate its implementation on a regular basis.

Who should be euthanized?
Animals that should be considered for humane euthanasia include:

  • Animals that cannot stand and are not responding to treatment.
  • Sick animals that do not respond to treatment, are not eating and have drug residues. Do not cull sick animals as a way to "get rid of them." The public does not want to consume sick cows especially if they have been treated with medications. Do not sell animals that may have violative drug residues.
  • Severely lame animals that do not respond to treatment or are in severe pain, especially if the foot or leg is extremely swollen. Do not cull lame animals.
  • Animals with broken bones or severe injuries.

Proper euthanasia methods
There are only three approved methods of euthanasia for cattle and they are: IV injection of a pentobarbital (a drug your veterinarian must administer), gunshot, or captive bolt. All other methods are not appropriate. It is important to note that all of these methods must be done correctly in order for it to be considered a humane euthanasia.

  • IV pentobarbital. This is a drug that your veterinarian must administer. It causes immediate death and is painless to the animal. Deep burial of the animal is required because if an animal scavenges the carcass, it can ingest the drug from the dead animal's tissues.
  • Gunshot and captive bolt. Both of these methods are similar. The proper placement of the bullet or bolt is critical to ensure instant unconsciousness. This point is the intersection of two lines that are drawn from the outside corner of the eye to the base of the opposite horn. Do not shoot between the eyes or you will miss the part of the brain you need to hit. A 22 caliber gun is acceptable for calves but larger animals require a 22 magnum or higher caliber or shotgun slugs. Do not use hollow point bullets as they fragment before penetrating the brain. After the shot is placed, bleeding out the animal may be necessary or administration of a drug to stop the heart may be needed. Ask your veterinarian for guidance

An excellent resource for euthanasia protocols with printable English and Spanish literature is available at Temple Grandin stated that "Nature is cruel, we don't have to be." Humane euthanasia should be a written protocol on all of our dairy farms.

Fred Gingrich is a practicing veterinarian and owner of Country Roads Veterinary Services Inc., in Ashland, Ohio.