The Dilemma of Euthanasia

Compassion is not just sympathy but a desire to alleviate suffering.

The Dilemma of Euthanasia

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We make every effort to give our goats a good life … but how do we ensure a good death? 

“Since we take responsibility for their lives, we must also take responsibility for their deaths; and sometimes we must be the ones who do it. ” — OOH RAH Dairy Goats, Tennessee. 

Most of us would rather not think it, but all life ends in death. When death does not come easily or naturally, and a goat suffers, we can better care for them in their time of greatest need if we are prepared. 

Heidi Lablue shares her experience: “I was in a situation where a goat needed to be put down immediately, and I was at a loss. It was traumatic for all of us and I feel with more knowledge, it could have gone better.” 

The word euthanasia has Greek roots meaning “easy death” — causing no pain or distress. According to the Euthanasia Reference Manual published by the United States Humane Society, humane euthanasia requires: 

  • Compassion  
  • Knowledge 
  • Technical skill  
  • Appropriate application of techniques and equipment available, and 
  • Wisdom to know when euthanasia should, and should not, be performed. 

Compassion is not just sympathy but a desire to alleviate suffering. Sometimes overcome by our own need to hold on, or lack of a plan and resources, we prolong the animal’s pain. If you are not mentally or emotionally able to euthanize an animal, it is critical to have a well-defined welfare plan for your animals. Our struggle should not result in inaction. Create a euthanasia plan for every herd health program and post it in the barn. 

“Acceptable” euthanasia includes harvest, lethal injection, gunshot, captive bolt, and exsanguination. State laws vary. In some, it is felony animal cruelty to use an unapproved method. To decide, consider your safety, the animal’s welfare, urgency, available resources, skill level required, ability to restrain or transport, cost, and means of disposal. Every method requires planning. Have alternate plans as well, especially if you depend upon others. Euthanasia should take place where the carcass can be managed, but if movement intensifies suffering or transport aggravates the condition, it is best not to move them. 

At Kopf Canyon Ranch, the decision to euthanize never comes easily. But we execute it quickly, because we have already identified where euthanasia is our best option. 

When evaluating an animal’s condition, we ask these questions: 

  • If the goat is in pain, can the pain be managed? 
  • Does the environment support recovery? 
  • What is the likelihood and timeline of full recovery? Will treatment cause more suffering? 
  • Do we have adequate resources (time, money, availability, space, equipment) to provide ongoing treatment? 
  • What are the chances of the situation worsening? 
  • If full recovery is not possible, will the animal still enjoy quality of life? 

Planning reduces stress in an already emotionally charged situation. While “trying as long as the animal is trying” is generally a good guideline, an animal has no understanding of their injuries or prognosis for recovery, and sometimes we must decide sooner rather than later. 

If an injured animal is otherwise healthy, and has not been medicated, a processor can be humanely dispatch and harvest for meat. If you do not want the meat, you can make other arrangements for its use. Some processors make farm calls; others require you to transport the animal. Discuss options and availability before you need to call on them in an emergency. 

A veterinarian may administer a lethal injection of sodium pentobarbital. In low doses, this drug is used as anesthesia. It can have disturbing side effects — uncontrolled movement and vocalization — before the full effect of euthanasia is achieved. A former veterinary technician, who preferred not to be identified, cautioned: “I’ve assisted with many euthanasia procedures. Some went perfect, some did not, and some went way too long.” If you depend on veterinary care in an emergency, you must develop a relationship with veterinarians — and a plan — before the emergency occurs. Is your veterinarian on call 24/7? Do they make farm calls? Pentobarbital is toxic and renders the carcass hazardous, which can limit disposal options. 

Sometimes, a veterinarian can be hours away when an animal is in tremendous pain. Marsha Gibson has worked in a clinic and appreciates veterinary care, but on her farm in Missouri, “A well-placed bullet is quick and so much less stressful for the animal. My goats don’t appreciate strangers handling them, so a vet coming out just adds to what they are going through, and a trip to the clinic is even worse. In their final moments they are in a place they are comfortable and with the person they trust.” 

A gunshot is not without risk to the handlers. You must restrain the animal in a place that is safe to shoot, which includes a backstop such as a hill or straw bales to avoid ricochet if the shot is missed or the bullet exits. Proper shot placement is critical. We keep a euthanasia guide posted in our barn — to guide us or someone else if we are unavailable. If you do not know how to use a gun safely or are uncomfortable doing so, plan in advance with someone who can. 

With successful shots, the animal should collapse immediately and make no effort to get up. The body goes rigid, though afterward some muscles may move involuntarily. Rhythmic breathing stops. The animal may gasp — which is a reflex, not a struggle to breathe. Eyes remain fixed and open. There will be no vocalization. The heart continues to beat for several minutes until there is no oxygen. 

Some recommend captive bolt guns, more typically seen in slaughter facilities, for those uncomfortable with handguns. There are two types of captive bolt guns. Non-penetrating delivers a concussion and stuns the animal, but does not necessarily kill. Penetrating releases a bolt into the animal’s head and brain without separating from the gun. While safer for the handler, these do not always effectively euthanize and the handler must use a secondary method such as exsanguination. 

The topic of exsanguination (bleeding out) is controversial. Some religions practice it as humane, but others counter that the process is painful and lengthy. 

Regardless of the method used, it is imperative to confirm death by absence of heartbeat, respiration, corneal reflex, and onset of rigor mortis before disposal. 

How do you dispose of a dead animal? 

Know the laws regarding animal disposal in your area. Processors and veterinarians manage disposal for you. Different landfills have different policies. Rendering plants can collect animals for a fee. Cremation can be done by a facility or on-site. In some areas, the carcass can be composted or buried following very specific guidelines.  

Euthanasia requires thought. Karissima Walker, Walkerwood, South Carolina knows from experience. “Sometimes we are too afraid to sit with the animal entrusted to our care and consider the choice. Make a space in your heart and breathe, don’t let someone else (no matter how trusted, how authoritative) make that choice for you. You are responsible for the animal in your charge, and you must be able to live with your decision. 

“I’ve said goodbye without remorse, but it was a decision I reached on my own, in conjunction with the animal. You know your goat best and you are the decision-maker on their behalf. Don’t be afraid of making that choice, but make it for you and them — never for someone else.” 

Animals in distress need people around them to remain calm and comforting. If that isn’t possible, say goodbye and allow others to provide care. On our farm, we use gunshot, and while Dale doesn’t like doing it, he is better able to focus and complete that task. I prepare and soothe the animal, and stay present, talking to the animal from behind the line of fire, until the gun is fired. And then I cry. Every time. I still cry thinking about it. Crying is a very natural response to grief and loss. Allow for yourself and others to experience the emotions around death.   

Michelle Young of Little Leapers Farm in Maine says, “You’ll almost always second guess yourself or have some sort of regrets. Hold on to the good that the animal brought you and know that you did the best you could. If possible, learn from the experience. But most important: know that in those last moments you were kind and humane and did the best you could. Have compassion for your animals and for yourself.” 

Originally published in the July/August 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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