Euthanasia on the Farm: 5 Things to Consider

If you have farm animals, euthanasia will probably come up at some point. Here's what to consider before the difficult decision presents itself.

by Anna O'Brien
PHOTO: Shutterstock

The choice to euthanize an animal is never pleasant. However, we’re lucky to have advancements in veterinary diagnostics and medicine to help us better time and weigh our alternatives. When we do choose euthanasia, we have humane options. However, euthanizing farm animals presents a set of challenges that are amplified relative to saying goodbye to a cat or dog, mostly because of the size and bulk of the animal itself. Here are some aspects you’ll need to consider in the event a farm animal needs to be euthanized.

1. Method of Euthanasia

The American Veterinary Medical Association has established guidelines on acceptable methods of euthanasia for all domestic species in the U.S. This resource is thorough, well-organized and helpful. In general, for farm animals, injectable euthanasia solution or gunshot are the most common methods, and each comes with major considerations.

Although it might seem obvious, it bears emphasizing that if a veterinarian euthanizes an animal on your farm with an injectable euthanasia solution, this animal should not enter the food chain for humans or other animals and should be disposed of as soon as possible. Most state regulations require a landowner dispose of an animal carcass within 48 hours. Likewise, carcasses should not be left or dumped in an open field or ditch, as the euthanasia drug is toxic to the environment and scavenging wildlife.

Euthanasia by gunshot does not require a veterinarian but must be done by someone familiar with firearms and firearm safety. Additionally, there is a specific anatomic location that ensures immediate death of an animal when a firearm is used. This location varies with species, and it is imperative for a humane death (and safety to personnel) that the user knows where to aim. For all ruminant species (cows, sheep, goats, llamas and alpacas) as well as horses, this location is not right between the eyes, but above, corresponding anatomically to where the brain sits in the skulls of these animals. Talk to your veterinarian or your local extension agent about the correct location for this method.

2. Environmental Location for Euthanasia

If an animal cannot move, the location of where the euthanasia takes place is a moot point, but this is a good time to emphasize the following: Do not drag a nonambulatory animal. This causes extreme distress. If, however, an animal can walk, choose a location for euthanasia near where the carcass will be disposed, if possible. If you are relying on a carcass removal service, a location near the road is preferable (but out of sight of the public). If the carcass will be exposed for a period of time (again, keep in mind local regulations), keep the area free of scavengers and, if possible, protect the carcass from extreme heat or wetness.

3. Burial or Composting

These are two common options for carcass disposal on a large farm. If you plan to dispose of your animal on your own property, be familiar with your state regulations. For example, for on-site burials, some states restrict the size of the animal and how deep it can be buried. Interestingly, the 6-feet-under rule might not apply. Some states do not allow animals buried deeper than 6 feet, depending on bedrock, the water table, runoff and other geographical factors.

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4. Rendering Services

Depending on where you live, you might have access to a local rendering service that can remove the carcass from your property. The benefit? You don’t have to worry about disposal on your property. A drawback is that you have to pay for the service. Whether the service can reach the carcass is another consideration to consider.

5. Quiet and Controlled Environment

In some situations where euthanasia is required, the animal is in extreme distress. Even if the animal is quiet or moribund, keep the procedure as calm as possible for the benefit of the animal and the people around you. Although humane euthanasia is paramount, your own personal safety and the safety of your personnel are equally as important. The best way to ensure this is clear communication. Make sure everyone in the immediate area knows what is happening, when it is happening and what to expect, particularly if firearms are used. With any method of euthanasia, there is the risk of violent, involuntary movements, and personnel should stand clear of the animal’s legs and head. Horses, if they’re standing, sometimes fall to the ground in a hard and awkward manner, so make sure the ground in the immediate area is clear of debris.

Like having a well-stocked first-aid kit, considering and planning for a euthanasia on the farm is standard emergency preparedness. Talk to your vet about the options that apply to your farm and your animals.

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