Animal euthanasia

Animal euthanasia

Animal euthanasia (from the Greek meaning "good death") is the act of putting to death painlessly or allowing to die, as by withholding extreme medical measures, an animal suffering from an incurable, especially a painful, disease or condition.[1] Euthanasia methods are designed to cause minimal pain and distress. Euthanasia is distinct from animal slaughter and pest control, which are performed for purposes other than an act of mercy, although in some cases the killing procedure is the same.

In domesticated animals, this process is commonly referred to by euphemisms such as "lay down", "put down", "put to sleep", or "put out of its/his/her misery".



Intravenous anesthetic

Pets are almost always euthanized by intravenous injection, typically a very high dose of pentobarbital or sodium thiopental. Unconsciousness, respiratory then cardiac arrest follow rapidly, usually within 30 seconds.[2] Observers generally describe it as a quick and peaceful death.

Some veterinarians perform a two-stage process: An initial injection that simply renders the pet unconscious and a second shot that causes death.[citation needed] This allows the owner the chance to say goodbye to a live pet without their emotions stressing the pet. It also greatly mitigates any tendency toward spasm and other involuntary movement (i.e., the pet's facial or eye movement) which would tend to increase the emotional upset that the pet's owner is already experiencing.

For large animals, the volumes of barbiturates required are considered by some to be impractical, although this is standard practice in the United States.[3] In some cases, shooting (see below) is considered appropriate. Alternatively, for horses and cattle, other drugs may be available. Some specially formulated combination products are available, such as Somulose (Secobarbital/Cinchocaine) and Tributame (Embutramide/Chloroquine/Lidocaine), which cause deep unconsciousness and cardiac arrest independently, with a lower volume of injection, thus making the process faster, safer, and more effective.

Occasionally, a horse injected with these mixtures may display apparent seizure activity before death. This may be due to premature cardiac arrest. However, if normal precautions (e.g., sedation with detomidine) are taken, this is rarely a problem.[4] Anecdotal reports that long term use of phenylbutazone increase the risk of this reaction are unverified.


Gas anesthetics such as isoflurane and sevoflurane can be used for euthanasia in very small animals. The animals are placed in sealed chambers where high levels of anesthetic gas are introduced. Death may also be caused by carbon dioxide once unconsciousness has been achieved by inhaled anaesthetic.[5] Carbon dioxide is often used on its own for euthanasia of wild animals.[6] There are mixed opinions on whether it causes distress when used on its own, with human experiments lending support to the evidence that it can cause distress, and equivocal results in non-humans.[7]

Carbon monoxide is often used, but some states in the US have banned its use in animal shelters: although carbon monoxide poisoning is not particularly painful, the conditions in the gas chamber are often not humane.[8] Nitrogen has been shown to be effective, although some young animals are rather resistant,[9] and it currently is not widely used.

Cervical dislocation

Cervical dislocation, or displacement of the neck, is a simple and common method of killing small animals such as mice. Performed properly it causes instant death, and it requires no equipment other than a pair of gloves for protection while handling the animal.

Intracardiac or intraperitoneal injection

When intravenous injection is not possible, euthanasia drugs such as pentobarbital can be injected directly into a heart chamber or body cavity.

While intraperitoneal injection is fully acceptable (although it may take up to 15 minutes in dogs and cats[5]), an intracardiac (IC) injection may only be performed on an unconscious or deeply sedated animal. In California, IC injection on a fully conscious animal is a crime.[10]


This can be an appropriate means of euthanasia for large animals (e.g., horses, cattle, deer) if performed properly. This may be by means of:

Free bullet 
Traditionally used for shooting horses. The horse is shot in the forehead, with the bullet directed down the spine through the medulla oblongata, resulting in instant death.[11] The risks are minimal if carried out by skilled personnel in a suitable location.
Captive bolt 
Commonly used for cattle and other livestock. The bolt is fired through the forehead causing massive disruption of the cerebral cortex. In cattle this stuns the animal, though if left for a prolonged period it will die from cerebral oedema, though this is a huge welfare problem. Death should be rapidly brought about by pithing or exsanguination. Horses are killed outright by the captive bolt, making pithing or exsanguination unnecessary.[12]

Reasons for euthanasia

Lethal chamber in the Royal London Institute and Home for Lost and Starving Cats
  • Terminal illness – e.g. cancer
  • Rabies
  • Behavioral problems (that usually cannot be corrected) – e.g. aggression
  • Illness or broken limbs that would cause suffering for the animal to live with, or when the owner cannot afford (or has a moral objection to) treatment.
  • Old age – Deterioration to loss of major bodily functions. Severe impairment of the quality of life.
  • Lack of homes – Many shelters receive considerably more surrendered animals than they are capable of re-housing. This can be attributed to irresponsible owners who do not spay or neuter pets, causing unwanted litters. Most pets turned in to animal shelters are not adopted out.
  • Animal testing – After use in testing, most animals are euthanized.

Small animal euthanasia is typically performed in a veterinary clinic or hospital, or in an animal shelter, and is usually carried out by a veterinarian, or a veterinary technician working under the veterinarian's supervision. Often animal shelter workers are trained to do euthanasia as well. Some veterinarians will perform the euthanasia at the pet owner's home – this is virtually mandatory in the case of large animal euthanasia. In the case of large animals which have sustained injuries, this will also occur at the site of the accident, for example on a racecourse.

Some animal rights organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, support animal euthanasia in certain circumstances, and practice euthanasia at shelters that they operate.[13]


Many pet owners choose to have their pet cremated or buried after the pet is euthanized,[14] and there are pet funeral homes that specialize in animal burial or cremation.[15]

In some instances, animals euthanized at shelters or animal control agencies have been sent to meat rendering facilities,[16][17][18] to be processed for use in cosmetics, fertilizer, gelatin, poultry feed, pharmaceuticals and pet food.[19] The amount of pentobarbital in dog food may have caused dogs to become less responsive to the drug when being euthanized,[20] though a 2002 FDA study found no dog or cat DNA in the foods they tested. They theorized that the drug found its way into dog food from euthanized cattle and horses. They also stated that the level of the drug found in the food was safe.[21]

See also


  1. ^ 2000 Report of the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia
  2. ^ UK Veterinary Medicines Directorate Product Notes for 20% Pentobarbital solution. [1]
  3. ^ "Euthanasia Guidelines". AAEP. 207. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  4. ^ NOAH Compendium of Data Sheets for Animal Medicines 2005
  5. ^ a b "Laboratory Animal Euthanasia" (DOC). Australian National University. Archived from the original on 2007-08-19. Retrieved 2007-11-30. 
  6. ^ Animal Euthanasia Information - Carbon doxide gas (Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management
  7. ^ Conlee KM, Stephens ML, Rowan AN, King LA (April 2005). "Carbon dioxide for euthanasia: concerns regarding pain and distress, with special reference to mice and rats". Lab. Anim. 39 (2): 137–61. doi:10.1258/0023677053739747. PMID 15901358. 
  8. ^ Animal Gas Chambers Draw Fire in U.S. - National Geographic
  9. ^ Quine JP, Buckingham W, Strunin L (September 1988). "Euthanasia of small animals with nitrogen; comparison with intravenous pentobarbital". Can. Vet. J. 29 (9): 724–6. PMC 1680841. PMID 17423118. 
  10. ^ Calif. Penal Code 597u (a)(2)
  11. ^ Tom J. Doherty, Alex Valverde, Manual of Equine Anaesthesia and Analgesia, Blackwell Publishing 2006 (p. 352)
  12. ^ C.J. Laurence, "Animal welfare consequences in England and Wales of the 2001 epidemic of foot and mouth disease", Rev. sci. tech. Off. int. Epiz, 2002, 21 (3), 863–868)
  13. ^ "Animal Rights Uncompromised:'No-Kill' Shelters", PETA, accessed June 26, 2010; "A reply from PETA to a letter inquiring about its euthanization decisions",, accessed June 26, 2010.
  14. ^ Allen, Moira Anderson (2002). "The Final Farewell: How to Handle a Pet's Remains". Pet Loss Support Page. Retrieved 9 June 2010. 
  15. ^ Porstner, Donna (April 15, 2004). "Pet funeral home offers services for grieving owners". Retrieved 9 June 2010. 
  16. ^ Becker, Geoffrey S. (March 17, 2004). "Animal Rendering: Economics and Policy". The National Agricultural Law Centre: Congressional Research Service Reports. Retrieved 9 June 2010. 
  17. ^ Smith, Van (November 3, 1998). "Rendering Unto Oprah". Baltimore City Paper. Retrieved 9 June 2010. 
  18. ^ "Chapter 9, Food and Agricultural Industries". Compilation of Air Pollutant Emission Factors. Retrieved 9 June 2010. 
  19. ^ Simon, Stephanie (January 27, 2002). "Pet Food Report Leads to Pile-Up At Animal Shelters – Rendering Plant Stops Taking Carcasses". Washington Post: p. A14. 
  20. ^ Myers, Michael (2004). "CVM Scientists Develop PCR Test to Determine Source of Animal Products in Feed, Pet Food". FDA Veterinarian Newsletter XIX (1). Retrieved June 8, 2010. 
  21. ^ "Report on the risk from pentobarbital in dog food". US Food and Drug Administration. February 28, 2002. Archived from the original on February 30, 2008. Retrieved June 9, 2010. 

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