Humane euthanasia

By definition, euthanasia is the practice of intentionally ending a life to relieve pain and suffering.

Euthanasia is generally accepted as a compassionate option where health or welfare is irredeemably compromised, injury or illness is terminal, or alternate treatments have failed or are unviable.

Euthanasia should be:

● quick;

● humane (performed with minimal pain and distress);

● safe; and

● confirmed and recorded.

It is important that those who care for dairy animals have the skills and resources to ensure euthanasia occurs in a skilled and timely manner if required. The dairy industry’s euthanasia policy aims to reflect the expectations of the law and our community, and uphold the best standards of animal care.

The recommended methods for best-practice euthanasia or humane killing of adult cattle and calves are by use of a close-range firearm or penetrative captive bolt to the brain. There are two locations where these methods may be performed (poll or frontal shot) but the frontal shot is preferred. The brainstem should be targeted, and it lies midway along an imaginary line drawn between the base of the ears (not between the eyes). Animals must always be restrained to allow for safe operator access.

Euthanasia by blunt force trauma should not occur on Australian dairy farms, except in emergency situations. An emergency situation is defined by the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Cattle as “the calf is under 24 hours old and the calf is in severe pain or distress and there is no other practical alternative”.

Once euthanasia has been performed, death should be confirmed using all the signs listed below.

Signs of death include:

● loss of consciousness and all deliberate movement;

● absence of a corneal ‘blink’ reflex when the eyeball is touched directly;

● maximum dilation of the pupil with no response to light;

● absence of rhythmic respiratory movements for at least five minutes; and

● flaccid tongue and jaw.

Always keep records of deaths on farm and dispose of livestock carcases responsibly and in-line with state law.

It is essential that staff are trained appropriately if they will be required to perform euthanasia on-farm. Training courses are frequently offered, equipping farmers with the tools and knowledge they need to remain compliant with best practice and industry policies on-farm.

It is imperative that euthanasia equipment is stored securely and locked away from children.

Performing euthanasia can be distressing. Not having the option to provide prompt euthanasia to a suffering animal when needed is arguably more distressing. Having an appropriate and clearly communicated plan for how the euthanasia of dairy animals on your farm should occur if required, and having the right training and equipment in place, will help ensure the best outcome for all involved.

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● Lucy Collins is completing her Dairy Residency with The University of Melbourne. She works as an on-farm veterinarian for Apiam Animal Health, and alongside her partner on his family’s dairy farm in south-west Victoria. She is a 2021 Nuffield Scholar supported by Gardiner Dairy Foundation.