The statement above is a quote from Temple Grandin, PhD, an expert in large animal handling and welfare. No true dairy farmer wants to be cruel to his cows. However, every farmer knows that bad things sometimes happen to cows: cows go down, cows are severely injured and cows get sick beyond the point of recovery. Farmers, farmers' employees and veterinarians make decisions about what to do when an animal is injured or ill. If an animal is in reasonable shape and can be sold to slaughter, doing so can be the appropriate choice. There are other times, however, when animals should be euthanized on the farm by trained personnel. One requirement of FARM 3.0 is that every farm have a written protocol and training for non-ambulatory animal management. Another requirement is that every farm has a written protocol and training for euthanasia. The herd veterinarian could be designated as the individual responsible for euthanasia.
When should euthanasia be considered? Sometimes the choice is clear, such as a broken leg, for example. Any down cow with a condition that will not respond to treatment needs to be euthanized. Other times, the choice is less clear, but in general, we should euthanize down animals which are not responding, and are not likely to respond to treatment. A veterinarian may need to be consulted to give a prognosis in certain cases. One should also euthanize cows that may be ambulatory, but are not responding to treatment and are not fit to eat. A simple rule of thumb is if you would not eat the meat from the animal yourself, the animal should be euthanized. Also, any animal which will have difficulty with a long truck ride should be considered for euthanasia. Animals suffering significant pain should also be euthanized if relief is not likely to be achieved in a reasonable amount of time.
This probably all sounds reasonable, but most dairy farmers have experienced one or more situations where the outcome was quite uncertain, and thus the decision to euthanize or not is difficult. Many have seen a down cow get up after many days of being non-ambulatory. However, we all know this is not typical. Most down cows suffer some degree of pain or severe discomfort, so euthanasia should be done promptly once it becomes clear recovery is unlikely. Part of training is understanding how to make this determination.
There are three methods of euthanasia approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association. The first is intravenous injection of pentobarbital. Pentobarbital is a barbiturate drug which stops the heart. Pentobarbital is a Drug Enforcement Administration Controlled Drug. This means the drug can only be purchased and used by a veterinarian, and it requires very specific recording of use and storage. Disadvantages are the cost and risk to other animals if the carcass is ingested. Dogs, cats or wildlife can become ill, or even die, if enough is consumed.
Gunshot is another approved method. Some people find the use of gunshot to be distasteful or uncomfortable, but it is a humane way to euthanize animals if done correctly. The correct method is not to shoot between the eyes. The brain is located higher on the skull than the eyes, and shooting in that area will not result in a quick death for the animal. The correct site is determined by drawing two lines, in an "X" fashion, between the outside corner of the eye to the base of the opposite horn, or by drawing a line between the base of the ears at the level of the external meatus (ear canal) on the midline. The angle of trajectory should be perpendicular or slightly downward, but no more than 45 degrees.
Use of a captive bolt stunner is an approved method. However, use of a captive bolt may not result in sudden death of the animal. To cause death, stunning can be followed by exsanguination, injection of a paralytic substance such as potassium chloride or pithing of the brain. The obvious advantage of a captive bolt over a firearm is safety. The captive bolt has a retractable bolt which penetrates the skull and brain, but then returns to the chamber of the device, making it a relatively safe tool to use. Captive bolt guns are not inexpensive, but may still be an affordable method for many farms. In our practice, all of our bovine veterinarians carry captive bolt guns, because we want to be able to provide instant relief to suffering animals in a cost effective and safe way. Cost should not have to be a reason for an animal to die a slow, painful death.
Dairy farmers take excellent care of their animals. We should all strive to continue this excellent care right up to the point of death, if possible. Sometimes this means we need to properly and safely euthanize animals sooner rather than later. For more information about methods and other considerations regarding euthanasia see: