Farm kids used to learn much standing at their parents’ sides. One lesson involved the obligation to “put it out of its misery” when a pig appeared beyond help and bound to die. It was considered merciless to delay the inevitable, leaving the animal to suffer.

What’s more, the sickly pig often serves as a vector, exposing its housemates to disease-causing microbes. For the well-being of the others, the disease-spreader ought to be removed as soon as possible.

It should be noted that to euthanize a pig and “put it out of its misery” when needed has never been more important than it is today — in this era of heightened awareness of humane animal care, handling and treatment. However, fulfilling that obligation remains a hit-and-miss exercise at most pork production operations.

A clear and present challenge

Often, it’s easier for someone visiting a facility to notice a pig that’s down in a pen or crate that the caretaker either hadn’t noticed or hadn’t yet addressed. Too often ailing newborn or weanling pigs are placed in an alley and left to suffer until workers reach the appointed euthanasia time each day, which may not arrive until the end of a shift several hours later.

That protocol needs to be eliminated; euthanasia should occur at the time the decision is made to euthanize a moribund (dying) pig. While most pork producers would agree with that, timely euthanasia needs to be given a much higher priority on farms.

A caretaker who claims she doesn’t have time to perform euthanasia when it should be done is signaling that she’s either careless or overworked, or that company executives have disordered priorities. In the 21st Century, such situations need to be rectified. There’s no good excuse for letting a pig that might have gone moribund at 8:00 p.m. wait until 4:00 p.m. the next day to be “put out of its misery.”

Compared to some of the other challenges facing production executives, this problem can be eliminated quickly and straightforwardly by simply setting policy such that:

  • The caretaker’s protocol provides for immediate euthanasia once the need is determined, and
  • The on-site supervisor’s protocol assures that the caretaker will strictly adhere to the policy.

Looking ahead: Preemptive euthanasia

As pig husbandry inevitably becomes ever more humane-conscious and -responsible, pig caretaker protocols must include guidelines for preemptive euthanasia. It will further minimize any unnecessary suffering of a compromised pig.

With preemptive euthanasia, early objective signs that a pig has recently entered or is about to enter the moribund state are triggers for euthanasia. The lab-animal industry already practices preemptive euthanasia. Many researchers investigating infectious diseases and toxicities using animal models have stopped using the subject’s death as an experimental endpoint. Instead, they develop endpoints that occur in the early moribund state — or even sooner — and then preemptively euthanize the animals at those endpoints.

Of course, deciding when a pig is in an early stage of dying is a tough call. The pork industry hasn’t yet settled on unambiguous, specific conditions that describe the moribund pig in practicable terms. The picture that comes to mind is a prostrate, unresponsive, apparently comatose pig.

There is good reason to think that such a pig might still be aware of discomfort and pain, so it should be considered. But, more importantly, the moribund state commences before a pig becomes prostrate and unresponsive. So, a clear, objective point of moribundity commencement needs to be held in mind when deciding whether to euthanize a given animal.

The tricky part in preemptive euthanasia is differentiating the state of dying from other states such as discomfort, illness and pain. A sick pig is not necessarily a pig that’s bound to die, and neither is one that’s uncomfortable or experiencing pain. Discomfort, illness and pain are all natural, normal states. Certainly, a pig should experience them as infrequently as possible, but it’s unrealistic to expect that the pig should never experience any suffering. Moribundity, on the other hand, is a pig’s terminal state and it indicates that it is suffering beyond help.

Some suggestions

While we can define moribundity, it’s still extremely difficult to diagnose in its early stages because it’s hard to know when a pig is deteriorating beyond a point of no return. Graded, multiple-trait scoring systems can help determine the beginning of moribundity. Such systems have been devised for use with humans as well as lab animals. But they are tedious and not practical in agricultural settings, and they are rather imprecise.

What’s more likely to be useful with swine will be to focus on a few carefully chosen traits as imminent moribundity indicators. These focal traits shouldn’t involve grades of severity; rather they should be simpler, “yes” or “no” evaluations.

Every pig on a farm should be observed at least once a day for illness, injury and moribundity signs. Start with specific references to diagnosing moribundity:

  • Being down (responsive or not) is usually an initial clue of a seriously compromised pig that may progress to moribundity. Question: Is the pig down or not?
  • When a downed pig is paddling its legs it suggests nervous-system involvement and, frankly, it’s already moribund. Question: Is it paddling its legs or not?
  • Labored breathing is another common sign of imminent moribundity. Question: Is there dyspnea or not?
  • Rectal or ear temperature of a downed pig that is 3° F or more below normal (in the existing thermal environment) is a sign that the pig is moribund. Question: Is the animal’s temperature abnormally low or not?

So, as pork-industry executives you should consider strengthening the company’s policies, as well as enforcing immediate euthanasia of overtly moribund pigs. After accomplishing that, consider implementing policies that transition the company’s husbandry systems to preemptively euthanize pigs in an early stage of moribundity.

Taking these steps will provide further evidence that the company takes its animal well-being responsibility seriously.