Certain jobs on a hog farm are less desirable than others. Power-washing comes to mind as one such task, and because of that, it tends to be a starter job.
One job that can be hard to do, yet is of tremendous importance to the farm, the people and, most importantly, the animal, is humane euthanasia. It's a necessary part of a farm’s production process and is actually a part of a healthy animal well-being program.
There are many steps to an on-farm euthanasia program and much to consider, but it all starts with the people. While everyone needs to be informed about the when, how and why of the farm’s euthanasia protocols, identifying the right people for the job is key to its success.
“The simplest way to get the right person is to ask for volunteers,” says Morgan Morrow, DVM, North Carolina State University, who has studied swine euthanasia options, as well as people’s opinions about the task. He and Steve Matthis, Sampson County Community College, Sampson, N.C., have surveyed a variety of swine workers regarding their preferences and feelings associated with euthanizing hogs.
Bottom line, some people don’t want to deal with euthanasia and it’s best that they don’t. “I know people who would rather resign than be responsible for euthanasia,” Morrow notes. The important thing is never force a person to do it. It may seem like pigeon-holing, but studies show that women, older people, those new to pork production and Hispanics tend to be less likely to embrace the task.
It should be part of the conversation when hiring an employee, especially if the person will have direct responsibility for pig care. At that time, it’s not so much about how to euthanize a pig but more about what your policy is and why it’s important. And that centers on the fact that “it’s the humane thing to do,” Morrow notes. The point is to end animal suffering, minimize its pain and distress and to do so in a timely manner.
Some people are not comfortable with some euthanasia methods, points out Michelle Sprague, DVM, AMVC Management Services in Audubon, Iowa. “That’s okay; find someone else who can do it.” Blunt trauma for young pigs is one such example; even though it’s effective, many people — even veteran workers — find it objectionable. That’s some of the reason why carbon dioxide options have gained traction; placing the pig into the container has less direct interaction.
“End of life is not a fun thing to watch or do, but it’s important to keep in mind what’s right for the animal,” Sprague says.
Workers have indicated they are more likely to volunteer for the euthanasia job if there’s a bit of compensation involved, either in terms of money or time off. Incentives might also help get the job done in a more timely manner, which is an extremely important aspect.
“Many workers have told us that it’s not stressful for them to euthanize sick pigs,” Morrow notes. In the North Carolina State survey, 82 percent said they could nurture pigs and euthanize them if needed. The thing is the job is often not done as quickly as needed. “Too often workers want to give the pig a chance. We’ve got to get away from that,” he adds. “You’re not doing the pig any favors by letting it lie there.”
It is harder for people to euthanize healthy pigs such as might occur under extreme economic periods (as in 1998) or in the case of a disease-control effort such as the United Kingdom’s foot-and-mouth disease episode.
A person’s experience, animal husbandry abilities and training about what to look for in a compromised pig are key, but so is providing a euthanasia decision tree. A flow chart that walks the person through various questions, actions/treatment protocols and responses to a compromised pig helps take the guesswork out of it. “Sometimes the decision can be black and white about what needs to happen; sometimes it’s more difficult,” Sprague says. The important thing is that the decision-making process occurs over a relatively short time period.
The decision process could include a welfare scoring scale from 1 to 10, to estimate the effect that existing conditions may have on the animal’s overall welfare, says Bob Meyer, anesthesiologist at Mississippi State University. While adverse welfare can be hard to determine, there’s also the issue of duration — how long an animal has been compromised. Suffering can be thought of as the product of incidence and duration, he adds.
“If a pig has been down a day, it hasn’t suffered too much, but two or three days without getting up to eat or drink — it’s suffering,” Morrow says. That’s why daily monitoring is so important. People working with the animals have to walk the pens and learn to look for challenged pigs — the obvious and the subtle signs.
Some of the more obvious criteria that could be applied to any weight or age of pigs:
- Weight loss of 20 percent to 25 percent of total bodyweight, characterized by muscle wasting. Sprague points to an emaciated state with a body-condition score of one.
- Extreme weakness or inability to move, with a lack of desire to eat or drink persisting for 24 hours or more. Certainly if an animal is non-ambulatory, it is an immediate euthanasia candidate, Sprague notes.
- Suffering from any infection or disease that fails to respond to treatment. Sprague puts that response time at
- two days.
- Broken bones or severe open wounds.
- A vaginal or rectal prolapse.
There are additive considerations as well. Morrow talks about the “two-strike” system. If the animal is dealing with a questionable level of challenge, but there are two or more concerns — underweight, lameness/arthritis, rupture, poor body condition or other physical issue — then it’s a candidate for euthanasia.
There are numerous approved euthanasia options for various ages of pigs, and it’s key that your on-farm program aligns with those. Your veterinarian is a resource and should be consulted. The American Association of Swine Veterinarians and the National Pork Board have created the “On-Farm Euthanasia of Swine: Recommendations for the Producer” brochure. It includes guidance to build a euthanasia action plan. There also is an accompanying CD-ROM, which provides six chapters useful for on-farm training. These materials are available at pork.org.
The American Veterinary Medical Association also gives its blessing to euthanasia methods, which it is in the process of updating. The comment period ended last September, and the final version should be released sometime this year.
There’s no question that training and monitoring of the process are key to an effective and responsible on-farm euthanasia program. While brochures and CD-ROMs are helpful, there’s no substitute for hands-on training. “Workers want to know what, when and how to do it and they want hands-on training,” Morrow says. “The more times they euthanized a pig, the better they did and the more comfortable they got with it.”
Consider your employees’ preferences and comfort level when selecting the methods to be used on your farm. Morrow and Matthis found that people wanted the process to be painless for the pig. Listen to their suggested changes, and make it part of your routine to monitor procedures and refresh their training. Also, see that the right tools and functional equipment are always available to ensure quick action when it's needed, Sprague says.
Too often overlooked in the training process is the need to inform people about what to expect during the death and dying process. “Unconsciousness and death are two very different things,” Morrow says, “and people can misinterpret what’s happening with the animal.” During carbon dioxide euthanasia, pigs become unconscious before they die; they may gasp, vocalize, kick or thrash. But, as Morrow points out, “they are not conscious. They are not feeling what you’re seeing.”
“We know from human and animal studies involving anesthesia, that they lose consciousness once they lose the ability to right themselves,” Meyer adds.
Finally, workers need to know how to confirm an animal’s death. Sprague offers these checks: no breathing, no heartbeat, no movement or muscle tone (relaxed), no response to painful stimulus, no vocalization or no corneal reflex when you touch the eye.
“The people aspect is an important issue, and we don’t understand people well enough or how the euthanasia process impacts them,” Morrow says.
As with many things on the farm, humane euthanasia is as much about people management as pig management. It’s about making people comfortable with the process, and it is about the humane treatment of animals in your care.