Sick Animals: How To Know When To Treat Or Cull

Making end-of-life decisions for your livestock can be tough. Here’s how to decide on the most compassionate approach.

by Rachel Tayse
PHOTO: Paul van de Velde/Flickr

It’s a sorry day on the homestead when beloved livestock appear sick or injured. You’ve invested attention in your creatures and hate to see them suffer. What’s a compassionate farmer to do?

Safety First

Before considering whether to treat or cull the animal, establish biosecurity for the rest of the flock or herd by isolating the affected one. For large animals, this may mean setting up a quarantine stall in the barn. For chickens or rabbits, move the ill critter to a separate cage. Provide clean bedding, drinking water and food. Often, a darkened spot helps an animal rest and relax.

If disease is suspected, sanitize all grounds and equipment used by the affected animal. Clean the coop, feeders and waterers, and move to new pasture if these are options. This will prevent cross contamination with any other livestock and make sure an ill animal doesn’t reinfect itself.

Do all cleaning and transferring with consideration to yourself, too, especially if swine flu or avian flu is a possibility. Wear disposable gloves and dust mask to protect yourself from potential pathogens. Wash boots, clothes and hands thoroughly before moving between the quarantine area and existing flock.

When & How to Treat A Sick Animal

Many homesteaders and farmers are of the DIY mind. With the advent of internet forums and YouTube videos, diagnosing disease at home by searching for symptoms becomes more possible.

“I’m not able to diagnose most diseases readily,” says backyard chicken keeper John Bannon, of Columbus, Ohio. “I usually have to ask a more experienced chicken person for assistance.”

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For less common illnesses and injuries, there’s no substitute for an experienced farmer or veterinarian. Beginning homesteaders can ask for recommendations for a livestock vet from their local friends or feed store.

After settling on a diagnosis, you may have to choose between treatment options. Just like humans, sometimes injured animals simply need rest and time at home to heal. Other home remedies include salves, dietary supplements or feeding alternatives. Farm supply stores carry some supplies like dressings, syringes and basic medications.

Other situations call for prescription drugs and surgical intervention best left to a professional. Many cities now have a veterinarian that specializes in backyard livestock, like chickens and rabbits, and most rural areas have mobile vets for larger livestock. These services can be expensive—don’t be afraid to ask for an estimate and payment options.

As your animal heals from illness or injury, consider reintroduction carefully so as to not stress the recently recovered individual. Returning a chicken to the coop, for instance, might change flock dynamics drastically. Sometimes housing an animal in a separate cage within a larger pasture area for a few days will ease the transition.

Making The Call To Cull

Despite the best treatment, sometimes a sick or injured animal just isn’t recovering or the extent of injury is too vast to heal. Other times, the cost of treatment exceeds the resources of the homesteader. In these cases, culling is necessary to alleviate the animal’s suffering.

Bannon shares about a recent incident in his flock:

“Out of three girls diagnosed as “sick,” one recovered after a visit from [a local expert] and her treatment advice. The other two were culled after eight days of isolation, attempted feeding and such.”

Culling is a tough decision that no one wants to make. You may cull a farm animal yourself or use the euthanasia services of a veterinarian. Either way, plan ahead so the animal suffers least. Also consider the disposition of the body. You may need time to dig a burial hole or find an appropriate disposal site.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) provides a page of Resources For Making End of Life Decisions, including large animal euthanasia, burial and cremation services. Some jurisdictions have specific regulations about disposing of deceased animals—the link above provides a list by state.

You may want to keep a nose print, feather or tuft of hair if the animal was a beloved part of the farm. Children and other family members might want to say goodbye or memorialize the creature with a backyard serivce. My family writes the names of lost pets and livestock in the front of the book The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, by Judith Voigt, and reads that story to mark the passing of life.

It’s easy to be drawn into livestock keeping by the joy of raising baby animals. Confronting the realities of the end of the life cycle might be more difficult, but providing compassionate care throughout illness and injury can be a beautiful practice when considered thoughtfully.

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