Your Reading List

The Dark Side Of Animal Welfare

Euthanizing animals when they are too ill or injured to make a timely recovery is one part of livestock management everyone faces, yet no one discusses.

The heart of the matter is what researchers have described as the “killing and caring paradox,” says Jennifer Woods of J. Woods Livestock Services. “The job of a livestock producer is to raise and care for animals, so it’s natural that many struggle with having to euthanize animals, especially when a lot of effort has gone into saving the animal or when it’s a favourite or a pet.”

She tells of her own dilemma when it came to euthanizing Posie, her young daughter’s 4-H lamb. Woods is no stranger to performing euthanasia as an animal-welfare measure at her own farm near Blackie, Alta., and through her extensive work in emergency response, training and research for the livestock industry, notably the internationally recognized emergency livestock responder protocols for liner accidents. In her head she knew that euthanasia was the responsible decision, yet in her heart she hoped it might be the day Posie would take a turn for the better.

“The welfare of the animal must always take precedence over our emotions, no matter how hard it may be,” she says. Emotional attachment to an animal is one of many factors that affect the timeliness and efficiency of carrying out euthanasia. An individual’s perception of euthanasia and his or her cultural and religious beliefs as well as the stigma society attaches to euthanasia are other major influences. Studies indicate that a person’s previous experiences with euthanasia and livestock also come to bear on the situation.

Woods recently researched and wrote a chapter about on-farm euthanasia for Temple Grandin’s new book, IMPROVING ANIMAL WELFARE, A PRACTICAL APPROACH. She opens with the statement that “euthanasia is the Greek word for “good death.” It is accomplished when death results in a minimum of pain, fear and distress to the animal. The avoidance of pain and emotional distress requires the use of techniques that induce an immediate loss of consciousness followed by or in conjunction with cardiac and respiratory arrest that ultimately results in loss of brain function.”

To give animals a good death requires timeliness, training and proper application.


“Euthanasia is your responsibility when disease or injury diminishes an animal’s quality of life or creates pain and suffering that can’t be effectively and economically relieved,” Woods explains. Sometimes it is an emergency measure and you won’t have doubts. Other cases will require a decision based on your perception of the animal’s pain as well as the prognosis for recovery without chronic pain and immobility.

Letting nature take its course (leaving a gravely ill or injured animal to die a natural death) or delaying euthanasia for your convenience are not acceptable, she stresses. You should see evidence of a positive response to treatment within 24 hours and significant improvement after 48 hours. Animals not showing signs of improvement by 36 hours following treatment rarely recover. There is greater variability in the length of time you should allow for recovery from injuries because it will depend a lot on the type of injury.

Treating an animal isn’t always the best option even if you feel there may be a chance for recovery, Woods adds. A long, costly recovery, or partial recovery is a strain on the animal and you, not only financially, but in terms of your ability to provide the necessary care during the recovery. Shipping the animal for meat processing may be an alternative before treatment if the animal is fit for transport and human consumption. It is also the right choice for dealing with older, unproductive, and dangerous animals before they get to the point where euthanasia is the only answer.


Studies looking at the psychological effect of euthanasia on people who frequently perform the task suggest they may handle livestock and apply euthanasia carelessly or aggressively, be dissatisfi ed with their job and miss a lot of work days. Changes in mental and physical health were also noted. On the other hand, people who understand the reasons for euthanasia and have learned how to carry out the procedures are more comfortable with the job.

“It’s so important to seek information and educate yourself about euthanasia,” Woods urges. Take a proactive approach to euthanasia as you would with other aspects of animal health and welfare by establishing a clear euthanasia policy and protocols for your operation.

If you have employees, your attitude will help instil the same sense of responsibility in them.

Providing training that covers all aspects of euthanasia will give your employees the skills they require to perform the task as well as the confi- dence to make timely decisions about when to euthanize an animal. Support, such as open lines of communication and counselling, should be available. Rotating the task will help, too.

Employees shouldn’t be allowed to euthanize animals on their own until they have been tested on their skill. Woods reminds managers that it’s their responsibility to regularly verify that all employees who perform euthanasia are doing it properly and in a timely manner. A standard audit program or third-party verification process is recommended.

Make a plan

Planning should actually begin by thinking about how the site will be cleaned up as well as disposal of the carcass in keeping with provincial laws. Biosecurity could be an issue because a diseased animal may release contaminated body fluids, blood or brain tissue following euthanasia.

The site must be easy to access with equipment for carcass removal and cleanup. Also consider the safety of nearby animals and livestock handlers when using a firearm as there is always potential for a miss or for a bullet to ricochet.

Quietly walk or gently move the animal to the selected area. Animals that can’t be moved without causing further distress or suffering should be euthanized first and moved after death has been confirmed. Aggressive animals may have to be put into a chute where they can be tranquillized and then relocated into a pen to be euthanized.

Restraint, if necessary, should be for the shortest time and as stress free as possible. A squeeze chute is acceptable if it opens so that the carcass can be removed. Halters are fine as long as there is enough lead to untie the animal following euthanasia so it won’t be left hanging.

Select a method

There are various methods of euthanasia, some better than others for specifi circumstances and species. Firearms are most commonly used for euthanizing cattle on farms and feedlots.

“It is critical to understand the ballistic characteristics of the ammunition and the muzzle energy of the firearm,” Woods says. The muzzle energy is indicated as joules (J) or foot-pounds (ft. lb.) of force. A minimum of 407 J or 300 ft. lb. is recommended to cause a humane death for animals up to 400 pounds, whereas 1,356 J or 1,000 ft. lb. is required for animals weighing more than 400 pounds.

Shotguns are very effective for euthanasia at distances of one to two yards. The 20-, 16-and 12-gauge sizes can be used for all weight classes, however, a slug rather than birdshot is the best choice when the animal is loose or you can’t get near it. Rifles may be used for long-distance shots with the proper ammunition to provide a humane death and ensure human safety. Handguns are suitable for close-range shooting within two to 10 inches, but are subject to signifi- cant legal restrictions.

A complete guide to firearms and ammunitions suitable for euthanizing various classes of cattle can be found in Woods’ chapter in Grandin’s book, or on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website under the National Animal Health Emergency Management System Guidelines, 2004.

Traditional penetrating captive bolt guns are not recommended as a sole method of euthanizing cattle. However, it is acceptable to use a captive bolt gun to stun an animal followed by bleeding out or severing the spinal cord as a secondary kill step.

Woods says there is a new system available in Canada designed specifi- cally for on-farm euthanasia that combines the technologies of controlled blunt force trauma and penetrating captive bolt. The Cash Euthanizer Kit provides four different muzzle options, which can be combined with five different strengths of power loads to ensure a humane death in one step for all classes of cattle.

Know The Target

There are two acceptable points of entry for gunshot in cattle: the front of the head or behind the poll. Behind the poll is the best choice if the animal is lying down, has horns or a thick skull. Consult with your veterinarian about the appropriate target area if you will need to submit tissue samples.

The frontal target area isn’t between the eyes and varies slightly depending upon the tool selected, Woods explains. It is approximately one inch above the intersection of an imaginary “X” drawn from the inside corner of each eye to the base of the opposite horn or top of the opposite ear.

The muzzle should be placed perpendicular to the skull with the gun angled so the bullet (or penetrating bolt) will travel through the brain following the line of the neck or the spine toward the tail of the animal and, therefore, lodge near the top of the spine.

Though a captive bolt gun must be held flush against the animal’s head, she stresses the importance of never holding a firearm flush against an animal’s head or body because pressure within the barrel could cause it to explode when fired.

Confirm The Death

Be aware that there is no such thing as instant death. It is a process whereby an animal first becomes insensible, then the body begins to die as the brain stops, the heart quits beating, the lungs stop breathing and the blood quits circulating.

Woods says you should expect to see muscle spasms after the animal loses consciousness. This is a normal part of the death process and doesn’t mean that the animal is in pain or distress. The initial involuntary movements should begin approximately 10 to 20 seconds following the euthanasia procedure and within a minute. Muscle spasms in cattle last for only a short period of five to 10 seconds. An extended period of movement or flopping may mean the animal is only stunned.

You should be able to confirm the onset of death within the first 30 seconds following the procedure and death must be confirmed within three minutes. Approach the animal from along the spine to avoid contact with the animal’s legs or the head if there is involuntary movement.

The most reliable indicators of death are the absence of a heartbeat and rhythmic respiration.

Other signs to look for include fully dilated pupils, no eye movement or blinking when the eyelashes are touched, and pale, mottled mucous membranes. The onset of rigor mortis shouldn’t be used to confirm death in cattle because it takes 12 to 24 hours to set in.

An animal is not dead if it has a pulse, eye movement, blinking, constricted pupils, lifts its head off the ground, tries to right itself, vocalizes, or responds to painful stimuli, such as pinching the nose. If you are uncertain, repeat the procedure or apply a second method. Wait at least 20 minutes after confirming death before moving the animal for disposal.

For further information contact Jennifer Woods at 403-684-3008.

About the author



Stories from our other publications