Euthanasia Part 1

This is a post I have been mulling around for a while. Euthanasia is a very emotional, controversial, and uncomfortable subject, especially when talking to people with different backgrounds. I have been lucky enough to be involved in a big animal welfare project that is going to focus on agricultural animal welfare….all species. The strategy sessions have one issue in common between cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, rabbits……euthanasia. Farmers know that one of the most important welfare contributions they can make to their animals is to properly and humanely dispatch sick, injured or unthrifty animals.
I also remember a conversation with a very invested backyard chicken keeper, and her main concern with the lack of accessible vet care for urban chickens was having no-one who could euthanize her hens, or teach her how to do it herself, if it came to it. Euthanasia is a huge animal welfare concern for anyone who lives with any type of animal.
There are two huge questions surrounding euthanasia….when and how. When to euthanize is an emotionally charged, non-scientific, opinion and value based question that will be different for each person. It depends on your opinion on quality of life, and your morality surrounding death. I am NOT going to tell you when you should make the decision that euthanasia is appropriate. I will state that refusing to euthanize an animal no matter the circumstances, is detrimental to animal welfare. Letting an animal languish and waste up to the time when he dies, instead of euthanizing him, increasing the amount that animal suffers. Having said that, the decisions around whether an animal with a specific injury, or a disease at a certain point should be euthanized is a value based question, and needs to be made on an individual basis.

Something I can probably help with is the HOW of euthanasia. Killing an animal and euthanizing an animal are not the same thing….in both cases, the animal ends up dead, but euthanasia has more requirements than the final result. Medically, euthanasia is defined as “the practice of intentionally ending a life in order to relieve pain and suffering“. Other definitions usually include the concept of “painless death“. In reality, true euthanasia is virtually impossible. You are taking a living body and damaging it somehow so that it stops living. You can use poisons, trauma, or take away something the body needs to live. It is our jobs, as welfare proponents, vets and caring owners, to get as close to perfect as we can.

There are 3 aspects of proper euthanasia.  1 – It should cause immediate insensibility (unconsciousness), 2 – It should be irreversible, and 3 – It should cause no discomfort (pain or fear). The issue arises with the absolute statements of immediate and NO discomfort. There is a second, separate, and unfortunately pervasive issue – esthetics. At the end of the day, we are taking a life. It will ALWAYS be distasteful and uncomfortable. It will sometimes be gross. The people it affects most? The people doing it. That is why many “investigative” videos show problems with farm worker’s attitudes around euthanasia….the joking, callousness or disinterest captured on camera are almost always defence mechanisms of people trying to get through a part of their jobs that make them very uncomfortable. It doesn’t excuse the behaviour, but it does explain it a bit. Euthanasia methods need to be accommodating for the persons executing it.

A real, and possibly the most damaging aspect of euthanasia (and the main reason I wanted to write this convoluted post), is the attitude of people watching the euthanasia…..especially the public, who are definitely going to ask agriculture to justify the methods we use to dispatch animals. If you consider the 3 aspects of proper euthanasia, the most effective methods of euthanasia for farm animals are gunshot, blunt force trauma, decapitation and maceration (of appropriately small animals). All of these methods are summarily condemned by people who are only used to dealing with companion animals. Why? Obviously, it is disturbing, violent, and gross. I get that.

But, think about it from the animals point of view.  Imagine a piglet, picked up and held, squealing and afraid, while someone holds him very firmly until a vein is found, inserts a needle, and puts him down.  It maybe takes a minute, and hurts only a little, but the fear level is pretty high.  He then goes into the corner, lies down, goes to sleep and doesn’t wake up.  Now imagine the same piglet, held for about 5 seconds, and struck with a hammer.  He is instantaneously killed, and there is minimal to no fear.

Which is more humane to the animal?  How would you feel if you saw someone euthanize a piglet with a hammer?  Would you be upset at the farmer?  Would you charge him with cruelty?  (NOTE: I am not recommending using a hammer as a proper method of euthanasia….there is too much of a risk of missing, and causing welfare problems….it is simply a thought experiment).

People who work consistently with animals know that euthanasia is an important part of animal care, and realize that euthanasia is about the animal, not the observer

 

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37 responses to “Euthanasia Part 1

  1. I have inquired with my small animal vet about ending a life of an ill chicken. She quoted me the price of a cat or dog. . . too expensive.
    Is it possible to have a medication on hand for putting the animal out of its suffering at home? Should I suggest purchasing a medication from the vet to do so? We are retired and live on a farm. I have vets for my large barn animals, but cant afford this for the chickens.
    Ideas very welcome.
    Thank You
    Penny Smith

    • Hi Penny;

      There aren’t actually any drugs I know of that you can buy to use for euthanasia. All the drugs used by vets for this purpose are narcotics, and are strictly controlled. You cannot buy a narcotic to have on hand “just in case”, because it is assumed that you will use it “just for fun”. There are effective physical methods of euthanasia that I will discuss in Part 2 that might be of value to you, if it is something you will be willing to do.

      Mike

  2. Yesterday I took our beloved labrador mix to the vet for euthanasia. He had a spleen tumor. Two weeks ago it was the size of a football, but it had grown to volleyball-zixed quickly. I held him in my lap while he went to sleep, then the doctor gave him the final push to stop his heart. It was a peaceful death even though emotionally it was very hard. He was a good dog, and he loved us, and it was time to let him go. At the end I felt like I’d given him a gift. No more pain, and love until the end. Thank you for this article.

    • That is the way it is supposed to happen Jane….there should be a feeling of relief when it is over, and, as much as it isn’t popular to say, satisfaction. When I was a large animal vet (cows and horses), I always felt that I was doing some good when I performed a euthanasia. One thing I’d like to point out, though, is that agriculture animals, unlike pets, often are extremely frightened by the restraint it takes to administer an IV needle. Studies have shown that handling animals is just about as stressful as beak trimming or dehorning, at the time.

  3. I agree about the restraint for agriculture animals. I appreciate your attitude towards euthanasia for those animals, necessary and quick. In fact, I had to hunt for a vet who wouldn’t take my dog into a back room by himself to shave his leg and insert an IV. I knew this would be distressing for him. By the way, I have one chicken left from three family pets. She’s hardy enough to take the heat here in Southern California. She thinks she’s a house chicken, I caught her roosting on a table in my den after sneaking in the back door. We don’t encourage her.

  4. Kendra Newman, DVM

    From one veterinarian to another, very well written article and responses to people’s questions/comments. Thanks for doing what you do!

    • Thanks Kendra! I appreciate the support. We, as a profession seem to end up in the middle of so many controversial issues surrounding life and death and those who can’t speak for themselves….if the public can understand some of the issues we face from the other side, they may have a better appreciation of what we do, both in vet medicine and in agriculture.

  5. Beautifully and thoughtfully put. I suffer with GADS so I know what prolonged fear can do to an organism. You just can’t see it.

    Perhaps us smallholders should develop an electrical stunning technique that’s quick and painless? It has to be better than C1 dislocation which always seems horrible to me and I’ve had to do it several times.

    • Thanks for the comment Marc;

      Electrical stunning is very effective, and is used in most chicken slaughter facilities. It works very well in a large, stationary machine with safety equipment and protocols. I worry about “jury rigged” electrical stunners….it is easy to imagine people making mistakes and getting hurt or worse. Cervical dislocation, done in the right way, is very quick (but not instantaneous) way to stop brain function, and research might indicate that the brain impulses that occur after dislocation are too scattered to be actually sensed (think static on a tv screen). With respect to practicality and safety, I think dislocation, blunt trauma or decapitation may be the best bet….but if you can design a practical, SAFE and affordable electric stunner, let me know, and I will send as many people as I can in your direction. I don’t care how the problem is solved, as long as it is!

      Mike

      • Good point, Mike – let me think on that one. Safe is *crucial* no matter what the other considerations are; and I think there might be a way – at least for chickens and other small domestic foul.

        I’m actually designing a new incubator technology right now which we’re hoping to bring to market next year for people in poorer countries since the emphasis is on efficiency. More of that when and *if* I get a working model ready; early trials have proven the theory but I’ve seen a lot of failures so it’s too early to tell.

        I’ve gotten cervical dislocation off reasonably well now for the odd times when I’m forced to euthanise a bird because it’s a last resort as all of mine are hand reared and human imprinted.

        My first efforts (on two adolescent Silkie cocks) were so badly botched that I had to resort to blunt trauma (with what I had to hand) and it nearly finished me; my doctor described it as a bereavement which actually helped a lot. It’s not something that I ever expect to get used to and if I did, that would be time to hang up the coop.

        My other option would have been to let the birds loose in woodland near my home – where they would have suffered a painful and probably prolonged death from either starvation or predation.

        I hope others reading this will realise that we’re not all heartless butchers – we do this to minimise suffering and (in that case) as an absolute last resort.

        I hope many others read your blog and in particular these thorny issues, your housing example was an excellent introduction on how “warm and fuzzy” idyllic anthropomorphisation is actually detrimental to the chicken’s well-being.

        Thank you again.

  6. This was very well done Mike! I remember the “dispatch” of my first animal in college (an agricultural college) in a meat class (slaughtering and processing). Yes, there was the uncomfortable humor around death and quite a bit of deep thinking even by the big football types. Death is never easy, and it is a part of life. If I wanted to eat meat I needed to know the entirety of the food collection process.
    Fast forward a few years when I met my husband I was “anti-hunting” as I experienced far too many ugly hunters. Well, he was a hunter! I had to look at my belief system and came to understand that there could be a hunter of integrity! Our hunting trips now constitute our major vacations.
    And we keep backyard chickens with the understanding that we are their stewards.

  7. Thank you for a thoughtful essay. I have had to euthanize a number of my birds (one was attacked by a mink and left half-dead, another by a raccoon) and I’ve tried many ways. Decapitation is the swiftest by far, but it eats a little part of me when I do it. One thing I did on a large duck was put her in a cat carrier which she didn’t seem to mind (she had been mauled by a hawk and was a bit out of it at the time), and then put her in the garage by the back of my car, with it running. I figured if people commit suicide this way because it is so painless, it should be the same for my duck. She died quietly in about 15 minutes that way. I don’t know if it’s a recommended method, but selfishly, I have to admit it didn’t bother me as much as the decapitation did. Thankfully I haven’t had to do this for quite a few years, but it always helps to know what you would do in advance, should the need arise, so you don’t have an animal in pain waiting for you to figure it out.

  8. Love and respectfulness can really tug on ones heart…excellent article!

  9. Kelly Mulholland

    Thank you for a well written article.
    I euthanize many animals at an animal shelter. It is always as gentle as possible for animal. I agree that chemical (2 drug) euthanasia can take too long and cause unnecessary stress for the animal. Some smaller remote animal shelters use a gun. Quick and effective for the animal, traumatic for the technician (sometimes)
    I have seen much suffering with the two – drug scenario. I often wish for a “sci-fi laser gun” to quickly dispatch the suffering or unwanted animal. Maybe that would be too easy. Maybe a lot of effort is required to do something so serious and irreversible.
    I euthanized the first of our hens that was unsuccessfully treated for impacted/sour crop. I couldn’t do the second (old age) or the third (unknown illness), so I requested that our vet euthanize them for us. What a relief for me and I know it was done humanely. The “girls” bring so much happiness into our small farm life. They deserve, when required, this gift from us.

  10. Thank you for addressing this touchy subject. Your thoughtful and objective point of view is reassuring. I’m looking forward to part 2!

  11. Mike – I find myself in the awkward position of considering euthanasia for one of my own birds. She’s a pre-lay Orpington and (to cut a long story short) has managed to dislocate her humerus so violently that the joint is visible. I can’t be 100% sure when it happened as there seems to have been some healing and there’s not a lot of blood.

    I had considered amputating the useless wing at home – but I don’t have the correct anaesthetics to ensure it’s painless and since moving her to a “hospital” cage she’s in better form.

    That said I can’t see a good outcome when there is 10-15 mm of visible bone sticking out from the loose wing. I’d be interested to hear if you have any thoughts as my own are rather coloured by emotion as you might imagine.

    • I absolutely agree that your hen either needs to be fixed by a professional, or euthanized. DO NOT ATTEMPT SURGERY ON YOUR OWN. Chickens feel pain, and a surgery this major will be very dangerous, even in the hands of a vet. You need to decide how to proceed, and either put her out of her misery, or find a way to get her treated.

      • Thanks Mike. I think euthanasia is the only realistic option. Just hoped there would be some miracle that would avoid that but I don’t have close to the funds to pay a professional. As always, I appreciate your sage and expeditious advice.

  12. Mike (sorry this isn’t euthanasia related; but I’d appreciate your take on this as it’s being raised in the community.

    Would hydrogen peroxide be safe to treat scale mites in chickens? We’ve established that it’s safe for removing red poultry mite from sheds, etc. after some testing at 1%. So far my lot of diverse keepers are reporting 100% elimination rate (early days though and they’re not scientists) but it’s killing the little buggers without dangerous insecticides.

    Obviously scale mite are a different species and are pretty well dug in, but I wonder if standing a chook in some warm 1% solution (or perhaps a little milder) for a few moments and then washing away might be enough to rid her of these little blighters.

    • Hi Marc;

      You raise a good question, and it brings up an important point…..just because a product is natural, doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. Hydrogen peroxide is one of the strongest oxidizers I know of. It is actually contraindicated for wound cleaning (at 0.5%), because it burns the tissues so badly that it effectively cauterizes the wound, delaying healing. Using it on mites in the barn (red mites) illustrates the effectiveness, and I expect it would work well to fight off scaley leg mite as well, but I would be VERY cautious that you don’t burn the hens legs. I honestly don’t know if a 1% solution will hurt them, but it well might. You can try applying it to small areas and see if there is any colour changes or reaction, before you apply it widely. Hope that helps.

      Mike

  13. Thanks Mike. We get H2O2 at 6% in England as a topical antiseptic (meant for dilution to 1% on humans) and my affected members have been having a gleeful time shooting down red mite with it at that dilution.

    Apart from being cheaper its a lot safer for human operators than anything I’ve seen advertised – and some owners are using insecticides that are not licensed for amateur use without the protective gear; which concerns me greatly. At least the worst that 1% peroxide can do is a mild burn provided it doesn’t get into people’s eyes. The effects of some of these others are quite frightening.

    I don’t know of anyone with a scale mite issue right now so I’ll ask if anyone would be able to test it at high dilutions just to make sure it doesn’t burn. I wonder if a fresh corpse would be useful in this regard? Always better to practice on the recently deceased than a live patient!

    The old saying stands: first, do no harm!

    Please consider yourself warmly welcome at Obsessive Chicken Disorder (you can drop in under a pseudonym if you prefer and we’ll keep your secret safe) – you’ll find us on Facebook.

    I’m happy to recommend your blog to all as it’s always good to hear from a real expert who’s actually working at the sharp end as emotions often take precedence over scientific pragmatism.

    Marc

  14. Hi Mike,
    I found you through The Chicken Chick and I have a question for you because I am seriously stumped. Last friday afternoon I was in our coop just checking things out and noticed that all 3 of my Speckled Sussex hens (they are 19 weeks old) had cloudy pupils. I scoured the internet only to be confused with lots of conflicting information. The next morning I called my regular cat and dog Vet to see if they had any input. Unfortunately, she did not have any prior experience with chickens but offered to take a look and she if she could help. So I brought in one of my hens and she said that if she were looking in a cat or dogs eye that her professional opinion would be that she has cataracts. She said that there were a couple of possible causes. One being a vitamin E deficiency (they are feed Purina Flock Raiser, along with my 10 other hens and 7 ducks, all of whom seem fine, at the moment) and the other a disease that would be showing other symptoms. They seem to be eating and drinking fine and nothing else seems out of the ordinary. Like I said before I am stumped and of course worried, any advice would be greatly appreciated.
    Natalie

    • Hi Natalie,

      I’ve seen cloudy eyes before, and by far, the most common cause is environmental. Young birds seem more susceptible, either because their eyes are more fragile, or because they are lower on the pecking order and spend more time on the ground. If your coop gets wet, or you don’t clean it often enough, ammonia is released, which is acidic, especially when it dissolves in water (ie tears). Ask your vet if the opacity was on the cornea of the eye, or in the lens. If the cornea, I would look closely at the litter in the coop, and how well it is ventilated. There is no treatment I know of, but most hens will recover once the ammonia goes away.

      Hope this helps

      Mike

  15. Hi Mike,
    I did think about ammonia but I keep my coop pretty darn clean. There is no ammonia smell at all and it is well ventilated. All of my chickens are the same age and the ducks are younger, plus the fact that the ducks actually sleep in the bedding. If that were the cause I would think they would be the first to be affected? Also, I have removed the 3 affected hens from the coop (they were removed the night I discovered the problem). As to the eye issue itself, it definitely not the lens, it’s affecting the pupil only. The Vet said when she looked into the pupil it constricted nicely but instead of seeing the back of the eye it was white. Maybe calling it cloudy was not a very good description?
    Thanks again,
    Natalie

  16. Hi Mike. I don’t know if you can help or not but I’m hoping you might be able to guide me. I’m a blogger and I have chickens. I’m actually blogging friends with Kathy (The Chicken Chick).

    I have a 3 year old hen that has become very sick in the past few days. I wrote a post on her and her symptoms here …

    http://www.theartofdoingstuff.com/cuddles-is-dying-i-need-your-help/

    Obviously with a sick hen this is time sensitive, so if you can please read the post. I’m looking for a vet, guidance, or at least a referral.

    Thank you!

    karen

    • Hi Karen;

      There is unfortunately, very little specific in the symptoms your hen is exhibiting. The only hope I can give you is that she seemed to respond somewhat to Penicillin, which is a fairly limited spectrum antibiotic. There is a chance she will respond to a broader spectrum antibiotic (one that affects gram negative bacteria). I would suggest trimethoprim sulfa or tetracycline. I don’t know where you would find any, other than to suggest a vet clinic. They will be able to help you with dosage as well. Use regular small animal dosage, and know what she weighs when you talk to them.

      I hope this helps…..good luck

      Mike

  17. Thanks so much Mike. I noticed this morning her crop didn’t empty what little contents she had in it last night and the crop feels warm. Do you think these symptoms could be the result of a slightly impacted crop? (I gave her a small syringe of olive oil this morning to help in case) ~ karen

    • I don’t think this is likely impacted crop. From what you described, my suspicion is egg yolk peritonitis or a bacterial infection. The olive oil won’t hurt in any case, and it is good to cover all the bases.

  18. I’ve found a local vet who is a chicken owner (Dr. Mark Camilleri) so hopefully I’ll be able to get him to look at her. Thx. for the help. ~ karen

  19. Hi Mike,
    I hate to bother you again but this afternoon I was out checking for eggs and noticed that one of my hens seemed like her feathers were ruffled and that her wings were not tucked in as tightly as the others. In every other way she seemed normal. She was hunting for bugs, eating grass and feed and drinking. Maybe it’s nothing, I feel overly acute to everything since the eye issue I had with the 3 hens. I think I am most worried that this situation may be related? Any ideas would be greatly appreciated. Also what would be the best way to go about finding a local vet that could help, no one that I have talked to seems to have much if any experience with chickens.

    Feeling frustrated,
    Natalie

    • Hi Natalie,

      Unfortunately, “rough” looking chickens are pretty unspecific. It is definitely a sign of discomfort, but could be from anything, including cold. I would contact your local vet association (here we have provincial associations in every province). They should be able to point you in the right direction.

      Hope that helps.

      Mike

  20. To me it dishonors the life of the chicken, providing eggs, bug removal, etc. not to take their end into your control, and take their final sacrifice and feed your family. Go to any home improvement store, buy a plastic parking cone, trim it to the length of the chickens shoulder, mount securely. Gently place chicken head first into cone, then take a very sharp knife in one hand, the other hand gently grasp chicken by back of the head and extend its head out, the red ear patches on the side of the head cover arteries, with one slice slice through each artery, let chicken bleed out. Exsanguination is relatively painless, and the process is relatively fast, seconds really. Now you can either skin the bird or pluck it. YouTube has many good videos on chicken processing. Old chickens make great chicken and dumplings, chicken noodles, or put in the crock pot on Sunday, really they are the best tasting, and it is a great way to honor a life spent of giving, and the animal now literally becomes a part of your family.

  21. Dr Mike,
    Have you posted Part 2 yet?

    • Hi Sally,

      I’m actually REALLY busy right now, helping develop some euthanasia resources for the professional farmers. Once that is done, I will adapt it to be useful for backyard flocks, and post something useful.

      Mike

  22. Dr Mike, Recently had a chicken sick for at least 3 weeks that I knew of, she died March 12, and after reading this article am heartsick that couldn’t pull the trigger , if you will, and put her out of her misery. First I noticed she was stumbling around like she was dizzy, removed her from group, she continued to decline, eating less and less . She very much appeared like someone dying of cancer.Eventually had labored breathing , not walking much but would stand until the last hours of her life. The other thing I noticed , since I bought these birds as pullets, and she had laid at least one egg since I bought her, was that her comb had not seemed to have grown like the rest of the chickens, making her still appear young like, compared to others. My husband and I decided to do a necropsy, not that we knew alot but wanted to see if could notice anything strange inside her. Had some diagrams and he is familier with duck/geese internal organs since he is a taxidermist. The liver did not seem right, seemed very large ,firm and mottled with yellow through out, it certainly did not seem to be something you would want to eat. According to your knowledge what could be some of the reasons be for an ill liver? Just recently read your enjoyable and instructive postings. Thanks Cheryl Tuma

    • Hi Cheryl;

      I’m sorry for your bad luck with your hen. It is always sad to lose a chicken, especially when you had to watch her entire decline. Do you know if she was vaccinated for Mareks disease? It is a virus that caused tumors throughout the body, including in the liver. Mareks disease will often cause tumors in the brain or in nerves, which could explain the stumbling, and would also keep her from developing as well as the others. My suggestion would be to try to buy chickens that have been vaccinated for Mareks disease as chicks….the vaccine needs to be given by needle, usually at 1 day of age. I hope that helps.

      Mike

  23. Dear Dr. Mike,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful and substantive essay. Probably like many readers and commenters, I found your blog through a Google search when looking for ways to put down a beloved backyard hen, who is declining and being bullied as a result (we isolated her for some time, but permanent isolation is not an option in this case). I saw your response to a recent commenter that you’re planning to post some methods soon; in the meantime, can you recommend any other resource for reliable advice? The Backyard Chickens forum swings wildly from one recommendation to the other, and some sound worse than letting the hen slowly decline.

    I greatly appreciate your sharing your wisdom and insights with us. Your blog is a great public service!

    All best,

    Kathy

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