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Helping old friends die

The veterinarian is the only practitioner in life sciences sanctioned to end the life of a patient. Parcelled with the professional responsibility to provide needed care for animal patients is the unassailable ethical obligation to relieve suffering, and ensure suffering ends humanely.

Most would consider the animals we depend on for a living “friends” to some degree. Few would argue that the kinship with a faithful cow dog, the old cow pony and the lead cow that brings the herd home every fall for a decade broaches a closeness beyond simple dependence on doing a job. Then there are the majority of animals in agriculture that graze pastures, produce calves and fatten in feedlots that ultimately produce food, and whose care has been entrusted to the cowboys, shepherds and livestock producers of the world. The stewardship assumed at all levels is that they are protected from injury, debilitating disease and conditions that compromise welfare. The food produced must be safe, and the consumer whose choices sustain agriculture trust those who bring it to market. Of course, none of this is possible if any piece of it oversteps the principle of sound economics.

We live in an imperfect world. Unfortunately, animals get sick, badly injured, or can no longer be cared for economically within the bounds of sound animal welfare. Euthanasia under these conditions becomes the only option.

Euthanasia stands for a good death. Euthanasia implies that animals are killed, when they need to be killed, that it is done humanely, and administered by compassionate and skilled people. It implies that client expectation and those who work in livestock operations are met, as are those of the public who may be far removed from a livestock enterprise, but connected as consumers.

There are many unfortunate stories and people willing to air agriculture’s mistakes. The undercover Mercy for Animals footage on abuse in the hog industry, recently splashed across the nation on W5 is a good example. The exposé of handling cull calves in Texas, downer cows in U.S. packing plants, slaughter horses in Canada and woes associated with the transport of livestock tells the world that no sector is immune from the actions of an indiscriminate and careless minority.

Euthanasia is a topic as raw as it is important. Deciding when it’s time, how it’s done, who does it and all considerations that need to be factored in become critically important. Veterinarians and producers must take the lead role in handling compromised livestock and ensuring euthanasia is handled humanely and professionally whenever called for. Consumers and the public will accept nothing less. Urbanization means contemporary consumers do not understand agriculture, yet there is growing consumer demand to know where food comes from and how it is produced. Ironically, the topic of euthanasia must be integrated into programmed herd health programs at the farm level. The right equipment is needed. Training on how euthanasia is performed and how decisions are reached becomes a compulsory part of managing animals raised for food.

In recognition of the importance of euthanasia, the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association (ABVMA) recently published a manual on euthanasia for distribution to veterinarians and the livestock industry clients they serve. As well, training was provided to over 30 practices on the use and maintenance of the Cash Universal Euthanasia Kit, a captive bolt system manufactured by Accles and Shelvoke. Approximately 50 kits were distributed to food animal practitioners in Alberta through a Growing Forward grant awarded to the ABVMA.

Euthanasia is an imperfect science. New drugs and equipment enter the mix. Acceptable boundaries around welfare and the delineation between stress and distress in animals are changing. Once-acceptable standards in livestock production have been redefined as animal welfare issues. Dehorning and castration of yearling bulls without anesthetic and post-surgical pain relief is only one example. The call for professional judgment on behalf of veterinarians and experienced livestock producers, especially as it relates to euthanasia, has grown more acute.

The act of inducing humane death in an animal is a profound human responsibility requiring the highest degree of respect to ensure it is as free of pain and distress as possible. It takes personal commitment to develop the right skills and transfer them to others who will be made responsible for euthanasia in livestock operations. Veterinarians are often reminded that their actions in helping an old friend die in peace and dignity are often remembered more than the heroics of modern medicine and surgery.

There are a number of important conditions attached to euthanasia. They include:

1. Unconsciousness and death occur with a minimum of pain, distress, anxiety or apprehension.

2. Time to loss of consciousness be as short as possible.

3. Methods used are reliable and predictable.

4. People performing euthanasia are safe.

5. Results are irreversible.

6. Methods used are compatible with the requirements and purpose intended.

7. The emotional effect on observers and operators are considered.

8. Methods are compatible with subsequent evaluation, examination, or use of tissue for diagnoses.

9. Drug availability and human abuse potential are considered.

10. Species, age, and health status are factored into methods chosen.

11. Equipment is maintained in proper working order.

12. Safety of predators/scavengers is considered.

13. Legal requirements are met.

14. Environmental impacts of methods used and carcass disposition are considered.

Death occurs in a step-wise fashion. First brain function (cerebral cortex, brain stem) is disrupted. Respiratory failure ensues, followed by cardiac arrest. The heart continues to function until blood oxygen levels are depleted. Unconsciousness is irreversible. Verification of death is imperative.

“We, who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle easily and often breached.

“Unable to accept its awful gaps, we would still live no other way.

“We cherish the memory as the only certain immortality. Never fully understanding the necessary pain.” — Anonymous

— Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).

About the author


Dr. Ron Clarke

Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).



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