Euthanasia presents one of the more difficult challenges faced by today's producers and farm staff.
Farm goals are always to maximize production and do everything possible to save animals. To euthanize animals runs counter to these basic tenets of production.
The financial implications of euthanasia are relatively easy to calculate. The loss of potential income, bonuses and the expense of equipment and labor to perform the procedures all contribute to the cost.
The emotional trauma of euthanasia is more difficult to assess. Many workers hail from non-agricultural backgrounds and aren't accustomed to dealing with any death loss that occurs daily in the production setting, let alone intentionally causing death by practicing euthanasia.
Also, producers are being scrutinized as to how they euthanize pigs, which could create added stress.
The Pork Quality Assurance program and the Swine Welfare Assurance Program both address euthanasia, and thus, provide a forum for discussing euthanasia practices. This is valuable because the veterinarian may overlook this topic during routine farm visits.
Following are cases describing euthanasia practices.
Case Study No. 1
Several years ago, at an 8,000-head nursery site, owners and staff were discussing the relative benefits to proper, efficient and effective euthanasia. Electrocution was being utilized occasionally, but there wasn't a “euthanasia protocol” in place. The owner requested that, as herd veterinarian, I investigate this issue and develop a protocol.
To that end, I reviewed the Report of the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia. This is an extensive report pertinent to all species of animals. It was last published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), Vol. 218, No. 5, March 1, 2001, available at www.AVMA.org.
The diagnostic laboratory was consulted, as I was aware that electrocution was used to euthanize diseased animals presented for postmortem examinations. The diagnostic lab reminded me that electrocution of animals for euthanasia is illegal in some states, except at the diagnostic lab!
Therefore, we discarded electrocution as an option. Physical trauma to the head was selected for the small pigs, and penetrating captive bolt for the bigger pigs.
It is important that any method be routinely reviewed with staff to be certain of proper application, and that humane death is occurring.
The AVMA divides euthanasia methods into “acceptable” and “conditionally acceptable.” The conditionally acceptable methods include gunshot, trauma to the head and electrocution. These are methods that might not consistently produce humane death due to the nature of the procedure, a greater potential for operator error or safety hazards.
Case Study No. 2
Chronic pigs, “drop-offs,” “starve-outs” or “hunger-strike” pigs are common conditions in postweaned pigs. In addition, “down” pigs from Streptococcus suis or hemolytic E. coli, severe greasy pig disease or chronic pneumonia from diseases like porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome occur frequently. If attempts to save these pigs prove unsuccessful, the humane response is often euthanasia.
At another 8,000-head nursery site, a monthly visit is made to assess the health and condition of the pigs. During the walk-through, candidates for euthanasia are identified and administered an intracardiac dose of a concentrated barbiturate anesthetic. Death is immediate, smooth and more aesthetically pleasing.
Barbiturate injection is considered an acceptable method of euthanasia, but it is also a controlled substance, and thus, can only be administered by a veterinarian. Administration can be intravenously or directly into the heart. This is essentially an overdose of anesthetic, and it causes very rapid cessation of respiration and brain activity.
Between veterinary visits, a penetrating captive bolt gun is used for pigs that need to be euthanized.
The other acceptable method of euthanasia is carbon dioxide, which depresses the brain and the heart. An enclosed container or system is needed to utilize this method in order to ensure that the animal breathes this gas.
If you have not discussed your farm euthanasia plan with your swine veterinarian, it is important to do so for the reasons depicted in these cases.
There are no injectable products that can be used by the farm staff that provide humane anesthesia.
A good resource is a brochure developed by the Pork Board and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV): On-Farm Euthanasia of Swine, available from the AASV (515-465-5255) or from the National Pork Board (800-456-7675).
Procedures should be routinely reviewed. This process should include time to address concerns about the euthanasia plan for your farm.