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Reviewing Humane Euthanasia Protocols

Updated August 26, 2019
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Heidi Carroll

SDSU Extension Livestock Stewardship Field Specialist & Beef Quality Assurance Coordinator

Additional Authors: Russ Daly, Robert Thaler

Unresolvable health problems and injuries occur in pigs in every swine operation and having a plan in place to humanely deal with these issues is critical. This includes having a written protocol for timely euthanasia. The PQA Plus Site Assessment (Version 4.0) has multiple questions regarding euthanasia and if overlooked can result in a Corrective Action Plan.

  • 29. Are caretakers responsible for euthanasia able to articulate the site’s euthanasia plan?
  • 33. Is the euthanasia equipment readily available for use?
  • 34. Does the site have 12 months of records demonstrating routine maintenance of euthanasia equipment?
  • 35. Does the site have a written euthanasia plan that is consistent with the current AASV guidelines and is accessible to all caretakers in the facility?
  • 43. If euthanasia is observed, are animals handled humanely during the process?
  • 44. If euthanasia is observed, are animals euthanized in place or is suitable equipment available to move non-ambulatory animals so they can be humanely euthanized?
  • 45. If euthanasia is observed, do caretakers confirm insensibility and death after the euthanasia method is applied and before being removed from the facility?
  • 46. If euthanasia is observed, are caretakers following the site’s SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for euthanasia?

This article is going to focus on question 35, which has three parts. Protocols should be written, accessible, and follow current AASV (American Association of Swine Veterinarians) guidelines.

Are Plans Consistent With AASV Euthanasia Guidelines?

In order to meet this requirement, producers must first know the current AASV guidelines for each phase and age of animals. The current AASV guidelines are found in the “2016 On-Farm Euthanasia of Swine: Recommendations for the Producer.”

Table 1. Euthanasia methods appropriate to pigs of different sizes (weights).
Method Approved For
Carbon dioxide (CO2) All ages, but may not be practical for pigs over 70 lbs.
Gunshot Nursery pigs or older
Non-penetrating captive bolt Pigs less than 70 lbs*
Penetrating captive bolt Pigs greater than 12 lbs
Electrocution, head-to-heart Pigs over 3 days-of-age
Electrocution, head only Pigs over 3 days-of-age with a secondary step
Veterinarian administered anesthetic overdose All ages, but may not be practical
Manual blunt force trauma Pigs up to 12 lbs
* Refer to page 9 to determine appropriate force and weight range combinations. Source: 2016 On-Farm Euthanasia of Swine: Recommendations for the Producer, page 3.

An important consideration when reviewing on-farm euthanasia protocols is to be careful to avoid simple errors. Here are a few examples of instances where a protocol may not be AASV compliant.

  • Using a penetrating captive bolt stunner WITHOUT a secondary method. Producers using captive bolts that are of lighter design may only stun not kill a mature pig. Thus, a secondary method such as pithing or exsanguination is required to insure euthanasia.
  • Using a non-penetrating captive bolt on mature pigs. Non-penetrating captive bolts can effectively kill pigs up to 70 lbs as a single-step method. However, the sinus cavity in mature pigs is significantly larger: the force exerted by non-penetrating captive bolts may only be sufficient to stun the animal. Secondary methods would be required, though choosing an alternative primary method is preferred for mature pigs.
  • Manual blunt force trauma on weaned or grower pigs. This method is recommended for pigs up to 12 lbs. An alternative method would be required for pigs this size. Additionally, this method has limitations and aesthetic concerns thus the National Pork Board and AASV support exploration of alternative primary methods of neonatal euthanasia.
  • Apply electrocution to the heart only. This is unacceptable. Electrocution must be administered via head-to-heart or head only placement.
  • Gunshot targeting areas other than the forehead or behind the ear.

Euthanasia means “good death” and is the process of rendering an animal insensible, with minimal pain and distress, until death. These instances of noncompliance can be resolved to insure a good death by reviewing the farm’s written protocol and making edits to match the AASV guidelines.

Is the plan written?

Standard operating procedures (SOP) are step-by-step instructions that specifically detail how a task can be done in a consistent manner by anyone performing the task. An SOP typically provides information about who, what, where, when, why and how the euthanasia task will be performed. In addition to the steps, an SOP has a title, identifies the responsible person(s) that wrote or approved it, date(s) of creation or review, required tools or equipment, safety precautions, and objective.

A euthanasia plan should be written down as an SOP in order to meet the PQA Plus Site Assessment criteria. Simply having the equipment and the knowledge of how to euthanize a pig is not enough. An example form is provided in the “2016 On-Farm Euthanasia of Swine: Recommendations for the Producer.” This form has the basic information for a euthanasia plan. Now all you need to do is add in the farm specific details of the individual steps to conduct the task, such as where the equipment is located, safety considerations, isolation or restraint of an animal, confirming death, and how to move animals and carcasses. A “General Template” to work on an expanded SOP is available online from the National Pork Board.

Keep in mind, if not all employees at a farm are trained in euthanasia, the contact information for trained individuals needs to be part of the SOP and be posted for employees throughout the facility. It is critical that euthanasia be performed in a timely manner, which means someone needs to be available 24/7 on all shifts.

Two sample forms for a euthanasia action plan from the 2016 On-Farm Euthanasia of Swine: Recommendations for the Producer. The form on the left is filled out with sample information. The form on the right is blank.
Figure 1. Example euthanasia action plan form. Source: 2016 On-Farm Euthanasia of Swine: Recommendations for the Producer, pages 17-18.

Is the plan accessible to employees?

After putting in the time to write an SOP, do not just set it on a shelf in the office. The purpose of having written SOPs is to provide consistency and accuracy in how tasks are performed by different people. It is important to go over it in person during an employee meeting to allow for questions and clarifications, and to reinforce the importance of doing it properly. As part of the training, remind employees that euthanasia can be emotionally challenging. If employees are not comfortable with participating, respect their decision. Periodically ask employees to provide feedback about how they are doing emotionally with performing euthanasia, or if they have suggestions of how to do things better.

Euthanasia may not be performed on a routine basis depending on the size of your facility. Having an SOP to revisit following proper training provides employees with guidance and can encourage confidence to perform it well. Another tip to making an SOP accessible is to consider posting a shortened version or quick reference card in vet rooms or other areas (Figure 2). There are general industry cards and posters available beyond the “2016 On-Farm Euthanasia of Swine: Recommendations for the Producer.”

The front and backside of a wallet-sized authanasia card. The front side has illustrations of the proper anatomical sites for livestock euthanasia. The back side has a set of proper firearms and bullet shotshells to use along with steps for confirmation of death.
Figure 2. Front and back of available wallet card from Iowa State University Extension, 2012.
A black, plastic case containing a captive bolt stunner kit along with laminated instructions for properly using the tool for euthanasia.
Figure 3. Captive bolt stunner kit with laminated step-by-step instructions included. Courtesy: Heidi Carroll

Additionally, captive bolt stunner kits typically come with protocols on using it (Figure 3). However, remember that you should add any specific details for your equipment and steps at your farm.

While the goal of every swine producer is to maintain health and well-being of all their animals, situations calling for euthanasia inevitably arise. When performed correctly, euthanasia represents an ideal end-of-life event for a pig suffering from an intractable, painful or debilitating condition. When performed incorrectly, it can result in more pain and stress for the animal, as well as anxiety for staff – and potentially invites criticism from outside the farm.

Written plans and in-house trainings will help ensure this task proceeds as smoothly as possible. Veterinarians and extension professionals can assist with questions about approved euthanasia methods or writing SOPs for your farm.