It’s not the most comfortable subject to address on your farm, but it is increasingly the most important — the when, how and why of on-farm animal euthanasia.

“It continues to challenge us both inside and outside of our farms,” notes John Deen, swine veterinarian and researcher at the University of Minnesota. “The swine industry is not in the same place it was 10 years ago. There is a need to explain in more detail what’s going on in our farms and to realize that some things are open to criticism.”

Euthanasia is one of those topics that generates many and varied views within the industry, between employees and certainly among consumers and activists.

Everyday, all day on the farm your efforts are focused on saving and rearing healthy pigs, so the thought of euthanizing some of those animals is counterintuitive.But, a properly designed and implemented euthanasia program is a critical part of an effective animal-care strategy. The farm’s owners, management and employees all need to embrace responsible euthanasia, as it reflects compassion for your animals.

Part of the life cycle’s harsh reality is that some animals thrive while others lag and suffer. First and foremost a euthanasia program has to be founded on preventing and minimizing animal suffering. In fact, the word euthanasia means good death.

“It’s worth a discussion about how important euthanasia is on your farm and how you prioritize timeliness and appropriate methods,” Deen says. Expect that discussion to be open, deliberate and thoughtful. It’s not something that you’ll complete in a couple of hours. Involve your veterinarian and many levels of management and employees.

Euthanasia is as much about developing a clear understanding and philosophy of why it’s important as it is about proper training and techniques.

At the center of this issue are compromised animals, with the key considerations being animal pain and distress. Perhaps the compromised animal is a lame sow or a small, weak piglet that’s struggling to compete.

As general working guidelines, Deen says, if there is no improvement or prospect for improvement after two days, the pig should be euthanized. “We have choices, but more importantly, we have to make a choice,” he adds. By that he means take action. “Euthanasia is not an attractive task, and it’s open to procrastination.” But allowing a suffering animal to linger, is the wrong choice.

When it comes to a compromised animal, the choices are:

  • To treat the compromised pig with an appropriate and practical method. “In some cases we have those choices, in other cases we do not,” Deen notes. He points to pain therapy as an area where animal agriculture lacks viable options.
  • If the animal is in good enough condition, it’s large enough, there are no food-supply issues and transportation is practical, then slaughter is an option.
  • You may be able to sell or transfer the animal to another farm or facility where it may do better in another population or get more focused care.
  • The final choice is euthanasia. “It is a last resort,” Deen says. “You have to work through the first three options first.”

There’s also the matter of prevention, which actually needs to be part of the euthanasia thought process. You have to work to identify and prevent conditions that lead to euthanasia whenever possible. That means looking for patterns. Review your records, talk with your veterinarian, use necropsy examinations to evaluate why animals are being euthanized, and then identify prevention methods.

Even with all the best intentions and efforts, some animals will still require, and benefit from, euthanasia.

The aim for an on-farm program is to provide methods that are painless and minimize the animal’s fear and anxiety. The methods have to be reliable, reproducible, irreversible (so the pig doesn’t come out of it), simple, cost-effective and rapid. They have to address human safety and there has to be some aesthetic considerations, meaning how it looks to the workers.

“There is nothing that’s perfectly safe, absolutely cheap, looks perfect and has no compromises,” Deen says. “Simply put, you have to take the limitations into account and choose a method.” (See sidebar.)

Researchers worldwide are looking for new and better options. The National Pork Board and American Association of Swine Veterinarians have committees in place to re-evaluate methodologies and make recommendations.

Currently, NPB’s and AASV’s newly published booklet On-farm Euthanasia of Swine is a helpful reference.

Your farm’s euthanasia program must address various situations and pig sizes; it must be written down; and you must train employees and monitor their actions. Participation in the industry’s Pork Quality Assurance Plus program, requires you to have a written euthanasia plan. The program provides guidance in developing one.

It cannot be stressed enough that any euthanasia plan has to make timeliness a priority. “I will emphasize again that the measure of whether to euthanize a pig is no more than two days of intensive care with no improvement or prospect for improvement,” Deen says. “When that decision is made, it must be followed immediately. Not ‘we’ll do it tomorrow morning or in a day or once a week or when the dead-stock truck shows up.’”

Personnel trained in the farm’s euthanasia protocols should always be available on the farm, including nights, weekends and holidays. So you may need multiple trained personnel and methods on the farm.

To further illustrate this point, Deen points to a review of PigChamp records that showed Sunday as the least likely day to record sow euthanasia. Digging further, the percentage of pigs being euthanized on Saturday and Sunday was much lower than the other days of the week. The top days for that act were Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. While tasks differ on farms by the days of the week, it’s a safe bet that the requirements for euthanasia wouldn’t follow such an orderly pattern.

“We have to ask, are we truly deciding to euthanize an animal when it needs to be done?” he adds. “On some farms these numbers were zero on the weekends. On other farms, the numbers show that pigs are only euthanized on Thursdays, because of the farm schedule.”

Pushing that decision-making challenge further, Deen says you need to establish cutoff indicators within your system. For example, in one study he found a pig that weighed 7 pounds or less going into a nursery had a 97 percent chance of being a poor-doing or dead pig coming out. The inability to compete will lead to distress and, likely, chronic health challenges. “If we understand how poorly some of these pigs do, the question then is whether some of them should be euthanized much earlier,” he says.

Another consideration related to timeliness is the assumption that functional equipment is always available to successfully euthanize an animal. As everyone knows, assumptions are a dangerous thing — it’s your responsibility to make sure.

“I’m not going to recommend any method because there are different scenarios for different farms, different levels of interest, comfort, safety concerns and so forth,” Deen notes. Review the options, the pros and cons with your veterinarian and staff.

Of course, you have to confirm death. That means no breathing, the heart is not beating, the pig is not moving — although there can be involuntary movements for two  to three minutes after death occurs.

The animal should not respond to painful stimulus such as a nose prick. “A good test is the corneal reflex,” Deen says. “Touch the cornea of the eye and look for a ablink reflex. Do that shortly after administration of the method, then five minutes later. If there is no response, then you can be quite sure.”

Make no mistake, your farm will be judged internally and externally on how you handle compromised animals. Do the responsible thing; develop and implement timely and effective euthanasia strategies as part of your farm’s animal-care program.

Questions to Ask Yourself and Your Staff

While training and technique cannot be overlooked in an on-farm animal euthanasia program, talking with workers and explaining why it’s a priority is equally important.

Here are some questions to help you get the dialogue started.

  • Is euthanasia a responsibility of the farm? “I think we can all agree with that one,” says John Deen, DVM, University of Minnesota.
  • Is euthanasia a responsibility of everyone on the farm — producers, employees, caregivers? “We have less agreement on that,” he notes. “People tend to assume that someone else will do it.”
  • How do we avoid procrastination? It’s probably the least appealing job on the farm and is subject to delays.
  • How do you protect employees? It’s a potentially dangerous job, and you have to take employee safety into account.
  • Is aesthetics a consideration? Yes, and it is part of addressing the other questions. “You have to consider how other people will view the methods,” Deen notes. If you can’t convince a worker to follow through with euthanasia, it’s best to re-assign the task to someone else — for the good of the animal.

What are the Options?

Animal euthanasia options break into six areas. “All are approved methods, otherwise they wouldn’t be on the list,” says John Deen, DVM and researcher at the University of Minnesota.

1) Carbon dioxide (not carbon monoxide) used on small pigs (pre-weaning).This involves specific equipment. While not elaborate, it has to be designed correctly. That involves a box (often a large ice cooler) with a buffer area that allows the gas to expand and enter the cooler slowly. In some cases this includes an air warmer.

The cooler must be pre-filled with carbon dioxide, after which the piglets are placed inside. Otherwise you will create dry ice and the pigs will freeze. The process takes about 10 to 15 minutes.

“This is not just a CO2 tank with a hose stuck into a garbage can,” Deen says. “There are even more specific guidelines coming out.” Done properly, it is very efficacious, he adds. “The fact that the pig doesn’t feel anything occurs almost immediately.” 

2) Blunt trauma, by striking the head of a piglet, also is limited to small pigs (pre-weaning.) This method can appear extreme but it is highly effective when done properly. That means training workers on striking the piglet’s skull in the proper location, with the proper tool and force.

“It’s worth a discussion as to which method, carbon dioxide or blunt trauma, that the workers prefer,” Deen says. New instruments and methods are under review.

3) Gun shot for larger hogs — post-weaning, grow/finish, sows, boars. This is a common, low-cost and effective method. The application site is at the front of the animal’s skull, between the eyes. It does involve safety concerns due to potential ricochet.

“We’re seeing more concern about occupational safety and health as far as keeping firearms on farms,” Deen notes. Along with daily security, it’s important that only specific people have access and that they have been trained to use firearms for animal euthanasia.

4) Penetrating captive bolt, also used for larger hogs as noted above. You have to be close to the animal so it typically needs to be restrained. The aim is important, the site position is the same as for gun shot, and the bolt has to enter the brain.

“There needs to be some skill and training, and no one bolt fits every size pig,” Deen says. This is a safer option than gun shot, but it’s also more expensive.

5) Electrocution can be used across all ages of pigs with the correct equipment, but it’s not practical on farms today. “It’s still in the development stage, mostly used for stunning in slaughter plants,” Deen notes.

Some of the studies have looked at 110-volt, nose-to-tail applications (the current has to run through the heart) on small pigs. “The weight cut off hasn’t been defined,” he adds. “There is some work underway in Europe.”

6) Anesthetic overdose can work well on all ages of pigs; however, it involves controlled substances that are limited to direct veterinary use.