As a result of recent media attention to how pigs are cared for in swine facilities, we’ve received quite a few Facebook comments and e-mails from veterinarians and others expressing their discomfort about the methods used to euthanize piglets. Several of you asked for more information and the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia’s recommendations.
First—to clarify—the AVMA’s Guidelines on Euthanasia focus on the science of pain management, loss of consciousness, and death. While a method of euthanasia may be effective in creating a quick death with no or little pain or trauma, there may be other factors to consider, including who is administering the euthanasia and their level of training and competency, and what effects the process may have on that person and on observers.
We’re aware that manually applied blunt force trauma to the head can be disturbing to watch and, for that reason, swine researchers are working hard to identify alternatives. Despite its appearance, it can be an effective way to euthanize nursing piglets. The fact is that manually applied blunt force trauma to the head, either with an implement or by striking the head against a surface, has been shown to cause immediate unconsciousness and rapid death when performed correctly on young piglets. It must be performed correctly so that it does cause immediate unconsciousness and rapid death. If it is not done correctly, it is neither effective nor humane. Personnel using manually applied blunt force trauma for euthanasia must be well trained and monitored to make sure that the method is performed correctly and that animals do not suffer.
Blunt force trauma is effective for euthanasia of young piglets because the frontal bones of their skull are not yet fully developed and a single sharp blow can induce immediate brain damage, resulting in irreversible unconsciousness and death. Many other species are born with fully developed frontal bones, and this method should not be used for them.
Physical methods of euthanasia (e.g., blunt force trauma, gunshot, decapitation) can be disturbing to observers, even when expertly performed. Because of this, it makes sense to consider alternatives if observers are unprepared or may be distressed by witnessing this type of euthanasia. When making a decision as to what technique to use for any animal, however, the primary focus should be on ensuring immediate loss of consciousness and rapid death so the animal does not suffer.
Based upon current data, the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia has determined that manually applied blunt force trauma to the head is an acceptable method of euthanasia for suckling pigs—but only when correctly performed to ensure immediate loss of consciousness and rapid death. Despite being considered acceptable, we have encouraged those working with pigs to consider alternative methods for euthanizing suckling piglets. Other acceptable methods include gases such as carbon dioxide, other physical methods such as captive bolt, and an overdose of an anesthetic administered by a veterinarian. It should be noted that the latter is not an option for animals intended for human consumption.
The updated Euthanasia Panel’s report is in final editing stages and should be available late summer/early fall. The following references may provide additional answers to your questions regarding this issue.
Chevillion P, Mircovich C, Dubroca S, Fleho JY. Comparison of different pig euthanasia methods available to farmers. Proc Int Soc Anim Hyg: Saint-Malo 2004;45–46.
Millman S. Mechanical euthanasia methods—process and physiology, in Proceedings. 41st Annu Meet Am Assoc Swine Vet 2010;443–446.
Whiting T, Steele GS, Wamnes S, et al. Evaluation of methods of rapid mass killing of segregated early weaned piglets. Can Vet J 2011;52:753–758.
Widowski T. Effectiveness of a non-penetrating captive bolt for on-farm euthanasia of low viability piglets. Des Moines, Iowa: National Pork Board, 2008.
Edit added 7/21 at 6:00 pm: We realize this issue is controversial. You are free to express your opinion, but please be aware that comments that are offensive, abusive, profane, or personal attacks will be removed.