When Livestock Euthanasia is Necessary

The 2018 USAHA meeting covered topics ranging from bio-terrorism to specific diseases in cattle, horses, sheep, poultry and pigs and more. ( AgWeb )

When animals need to be euthanized, it’s a hard thing to think about. It’s even harder when you’re the one having to do it. Veterinarians are put in that position often, especially when a weather disaster occurs. And it gives pause to think what would happen if a foreign animal disease were to infect U.S. cattle herds or pig operations.

Dr. Dave Sjeklocha, a technical services veterinarian with Merck Animal Health, has served in that role more than once. He shared euthanasia best management practices at the recent U.S. Animal Health Association meeting in Kansas City, Mo.

No disaster situation is good, but some are preferable to others. For example, imagine if cattle in a large feedyard had to be depopulated due to Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD)? Sjeklocha gave this hypothetical example, based on actual herds: 

  • 56,000-head feedyard becomes infected
  • 87,000-head sister yard six miles away
  • 34,000-head sister yard 15 miles away
  • 18,000-head sister yard 17 miles away
  • 52,000-head sister calf ranch six miles away
  • Total of 247,000 head of cattle

If these facilities had to be depopulated in 24 hours, 10,292 head would have to be euthanized every hour (172 head/minute or 2.9 head/second). With 20 facilities, you’d still have 515 head/facility/hour. It would be necessary to euthanize cattle via captive bolt or firearm in a squeeze chute.

Consider the Logistics
When you add in the manpower needed, the equipment and trucks to remove cattle, bulldozers to dig the hole for burial, the firearms and captive bolts, plus the materials needed to decontaminate the facilities, it’s easy to see how daunting the chore would be. A compost pile would likely be necessary but you’d need an impenetrable fence around the huge pile because wild animals would try to get in to feed on carcasses.

“I would hate to think how much composting material would be needed,” he added. “I don’t think we’d have enough compost material to truly do it right.”

With the resources the U.S. presently has, it’s simply not feasible to depopulate a feedyard in a short amount of time, Sjeklocha said. “We’ve have to vaccinate our way out of it, but where do you find enough vaccine? We’ve encouraged USDA to build a vaccine bank.”

Unlike a foreign animal disease outbreak, where the objective is to stop the spread of disease and safeguard the market, the reason to euthanize after a fire or blizzard is to end animal suffering.

In fires, that suffering can be horrible. Blindness, burned teats, testicles and hides, and hoof damage, which, Sjeklocha said, was “One of the things people didn’t see coming.”

During the wildfires in the southwest last year, the euthanasia process continued for quite some time. Some 10,000 miles of fence were lost in the fire so it was difficult to contain cattle.

“Cattle were scattered everywhere,” Sjeklocha said. “Sometimes the hides were burned so badly that you couldn’t see brands, so did you really want to shoot your neighbor’s animals without his permission?”

Blizzards can be just as devastating. Cattle are usually huddled together so they’re easier to euthanize, but that doesn’t make the task any less difficult.

Rendering services can usually handle blizzard death loss, Sjecklocha pointed out. But when you’re talking about losses in the thousands, it takes many days and significant resources.

Mental Cost
In situations where you have to put down a lot of animals, it works on your mind, Sjeklocha said. “You get tired of hearing the gun shots. And especially in cow-calf operations, there’s a strong emotional attachment between ranchers and their herds.”

Whether fire or blizzard, many herds have been built through generations with distinct bloodlines. These ranchers tend to know animals individually, so the emotional distress is greater.

Still, the way the industry rallied to help one another nearly brought Sjeklocha to tears. He recalled sitting in an office in Kansas after the fires, watching truck after truck loaded with hay arrive to the area from as far away as Michigan.

“The response to this wildfire was amazing,” he said.

A quote by Daryn Kagan ended Sjeklocha’s presentation: “Bad things do happen in the world, like war, natural disasters, disease. But out of those situations always arise stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

The 2018 USAHA meeting covered topics ranging from bio-terrorism to specific diseases in cattle, horses, sheep, poultry and pigs, and much more. Leaders from government, industry and academia gather alongside producers to find solutions to health issues that can help animal agriculture thrive.