National Hog Farmer is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Euthanasia: Making a Tough Call a Little Easier

The individual pain or suffering caused by disease, injury or an inability to survive requires timely action. These fact-of-life occurrences have been recognized by generations of pork producers, but cultural change now calls for euthanasia standards that extend beyond one's definition of what is right or wrong, explains C. Scanlon Daniels, DVM, Circle H Headquarters, LLC, Dalhart, TX, during a Pork

The individual pain or suffering caused by disease, injury or an inability to survive requires timely action. These fact-of-life occurrences have been recognized by generations of pork producers, but cultural change now calls for euthanasia standards that extend beyond one's definition of what is right or wrong, explains C. Scanlon Daniels, DVM, Circle H Headquarters, LLC, Dalhart, TX, during a Pork Academy talk during World Pork Expo in early June.

Values and Ethics

The most productive discussions about euthanasia begin with values, which are an outgrowth of peoples' backgrounds and beliefs. “We need to recognize individual values as we interact with the stakeholders. We're probably not going to win arguments (about euthanasia) based on technical details,” he emphasizes.

In addition to individual values, discussions must also include family values, values of employees and coworkers, consumer and customer values, and societal values.

“Ethics are the systemization and application of one's values — a compilation of one's values,” he continues. Ethics fall into several categories — traditional, religious, popular and legal.

A pork producer's traditional ethics might be expressed as: “I take care of my pigs and my pigs take care of me. In other words, as we provide a good environment for the pigs and care for them, they will perform well, and we will economically benefit,” Daniels notes.

Religious ethics, stated simply, is a God-given directive that we have control over animals.

Popular ethics, which is what the majority of people value, has gained more influence in recent years.

Legal ethics, often the result of popular ethics, is where people vote and the outcome defines what is ethical. A good example of popular ethics transformed into legal ethics is an initiative to ban gestation stalls in several states.

Problems and Opportunities

“With euthanasia, there are commonly two issues — ‘when bad becomes normal,’ and, using a play on words, ‘when normal becomes bad,’” Daniels says.

He attributes the “when bad becomes normal” view to livestock behavior expert and best-selling author Temple Grandin at Colorado State University, and notes that it usually accompanies improper training and a lack of accountability. “What is on paper and good in concept ends up not being implemented well over time, and poor processes become the standard,” Daniels explains.

An example is a poorly maintained captive bolt gun that does not function properly. Although the captive bolt gun is an accepted, standard operating procedure for euthanizing an animal, the end result may be unacceptable due to poor maintenance. This situation is compounded when a farm or system has a high turnover rate and operational and maintenance training lapses.

“Usually training or accountability is the root cause of ‘when bad becomes normal,’” he says. “The best way to control or avoid ‘when bad becomes normal’ is to have good auditing and assessment programs in place, and follow-through with corrective actions.” Often these audits are conducted by Pork Quality Assurance Plus advisors, often swine veterinarians.

“‘When normal becomes bad’ is illustrated by what has historically been normal practice but, through popular ethics, might no longer be supported by society,” Daniels says.

“It's clear to me that society's view of agriculture is changing, which will create different expectations. As veterinarians and leaders in the pork industry, we need to help pork producers understand this cultural change. If you look in the rearview mirror, we've been right in the euthanasia methods we've used, but because ‘normal has become bad,’ we need to help communicate and educate producers and the people who work on our farms about societal views (on euthanasia methods),” he continues.

“When I train people in that light, it's not that what we have been doing is bad. We don't get into a debate of what's right or wrong. We should recognize that individual values are driving the perception. If you put it in the context that society and the popular ethic has the same kind of influence they've had in the past, that usually helps promote a dialogue in a more positive direction, and it avoids the debate about right or wrong.”

Employee Attitudes

Daniels cites the results of a North Carolina State University survey conducted in 2004 (“Employee Attitudes and Perceptions Regarding Swine Euthanasia”) to reinforce that employee attitudes were influenced by a combination of the employee's attitude about euthanasia and their willingness to do it.

Researchers identified several different socio-demographic factors, such as ethnicity, gender, education, age and language, and socio-psychological factors, such as temperament, type and stress. Farm factors, such as the areas employees worked in, the size or stage of pigs they work with and the type of training they received likewise play a role.

Continue on Page 2: Euthanasia Decision Tree

The survey also asked about the euthanasia methods used and how they influenced the employees' perceptions of human safety, pig welfare and factors such as the speed and physical damage of the method used.

When employees were asked which euthanasia methods they preferred, they chose blunt force trauma for pigs weighing 1 to 12 lb. “I think if you redid that study today, there may be some shift in that,” Daniels says.

When asked if the perceived pain of the pig was an important factor in choosing a euthanasia method, the majority of employees (80%) agreed they would use the least painful method.

“This study confirmed that safety was an important factor in an employee's attitude and willingness to use a method; 55% agreed or strongly agreed that carbon dioxide (CO2) gas is safer than blunt trauma or even captive bolt,” Daniels explains. “But, it was interesting that a segment — 22.6% — disagreed or strongly disagreed that CO2 gas was safer than those other methods. Again, it illustrates that these perceptions are really a culmination of a lot of individual values. So, when we do training or we roll out a new method, we really have to get one-on-one to understand their individual views and perceptions.”

Daniels offered these conclusions and recommendations from the NCSU study:

  • Make sure you have the tools needed for effective euthanasia and provide the proper training for their use. “Identify the employees who are more or less sensitive to the euthanasia process; have a personal discussion about euthanasia,” he says. Think about how euthanasia will be handled on weekends, he reminds.

  • The captive bolt method causes some safety concerns in nurseries; explore CO2.

  • As part of euthanasia training, be sure to provide some training on the death and dying process.

  • Every farm should have a working euthanasia protocol (see “Written Euthanasia Protocols Required,” and the National Pork Board's framework for developing a euthanasia protocol).

  • Have a designated trainer on each farm for euthanasia. “Employees want more training and resources on this issue,” Daniels emphasizes.

“As I visit farms, I find there are the methods, and then there are all of the questions about how to implement those methods,” he says. “The key to swine euthanasia is a combination of a person's attitude and their willingness (to perform it), because that varies from individual to individual. It's a challenge to get everybody to apply a value to the decision to euthanize an animal. It's a sensitive subject.”

Euthanasia Decision Tree

Daniels has developed a decision-making tool to help make the decision to euthanize an animal more consistent and objective (see Figure 1; also available “Swine Euthanasia Tree”). “This tool helps standardize implementation of a process that is very sensitive to the individual values of a person,” he says.

The decision tree starts by identifying a health problem and offers some guiding principles.

The first question is: “Can the animal get up, eat or drink on its own?” If the answer is “no,” the decision should be made to euthanize that animal, he explains.

However, if the animal can get up and eat and drink on its own, the next question is: “Will the animal respond to treatment?” If the answer is “yes,” the most appropriate treatment should be sought and applied. If the answer is “no,” the next question is: “Does the animal have an open wound or no prospect for recovery?”

If the answer is yes, the animal should be euthanized. If the animal has no open wound or is judged unlikely to respond to treatment, the best option is to find an alternative market and cull the animal.

If an animal is treated, a post-treatment evaluation will determine if the treatment was effective and whether the animal recovered or not. If it did, then you're done evaluating that animal.

If the animal did not recover, it is important to evaluate whether the correct treatment was administered. If the treatment was appropriate and the animal has an open wound and/or no prospect of recovery, it should be euthanized. If the best treatment was not administered, the animal should be retreated appropriately.

Again, the question of appropriate treatment and the likelihood of recovery must be evaluated until the decision to keep/cull or euthanize can be made. If the decision is to cull the animal, it is critical to observe appropriate drug withdrawal periods, he emphasizes.

Because of the “take care of pigs, they take care of me” attitude, probably the number one thing that impacts a willingness to euthanize is an acceptance that, for whatever reasons, the pig has not thrived under their care. “Some people may look at it as they have failed that pig, so it makes it very personal,” Daniels says.

“The bottom line is this — with the decision tree, different people in different situations can evaluate the pig, applying a very structured process for translating their individual values into one standard for your farm or operation,” Daniels assures. “For some employees who might be more sensitive to doing euthanasia, it may help shift some of that emphasis to a process that helps them to not take the decision so personally.”