The veterinary profession has a special responsibility to animals during the final stages of their life.
For many people, their first thought when it comes to an animal's end of life is the care offered to a beloved companion animal after a serious injury of diagnosis of a terminal condition. Veterinarians have many options for palliative care and euthanasia of companion animals to help the owner make compassionate choices and offer animals the best quality of life possible and, where appropriate, a peaceful death.
The veterinary obligation also extends to the humane treatment of all animals killed for a range of purposes, including the depopulation of animals during an emergency and the slaughter of commercially raised or harvested livestock.
The role of the veterinary profession can be seen as falling into four main areas: Human Perspectives, Animal End of Life, Humane Killing Techniques, and the Disposition of Remains.
All of the AVMA guidance relating to Humane Endings aims to help those with a responsibility to animals to make informed and compassionate choices.
To promote clear communications between veterinarians and clients with companion animals, the AVMA provides brochures relating to euthanasia, pet loss and grief, and a AVMA Model Euthanasia Authorization.
The AVMA Panel on Euthanasia was first convened in 1963 to create guidelines for veterinarians who carry out or oversee the euthanasia of animals. As the guidelines have become increasingly influential, and in some cases recognized as a legal standard, the specificity and scope of the guidelines have broadened.
Now in its 8th edition, the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2013 Edition covers a multitude of species and methods, and includes information about animals' physiologic and behavioral responses to euthanasia, euthanasia's effects on those performing and observing it, and the feasibility and impacts of various euthanasia approaches. More information about the guidelines is available here.
While preparing the 2013 edition of the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals, the Panel on Euthanasia determined that euthanasia, slaughter, and depopulation are distinct activities conducted in different environments with correspondingly different considerations for how animals are appropriately handled. As such, humane slaughter and depopulation will now be addressed in separate guidance documents. A draft of the AVMA Guidelines for the Humane Slaughter of Animals was approved by the Executive Board in January 2014 and released in July of 2016.
The remaining topic in our series to be addressed via AVMA guidelines is depopulation (i.e., the rapid killing of large numbers of animals that is required by some emergencies, such as the control of catastrophic infectious diseases or exigent situations caused by natural disasters). Depopulation may employ euthanasia techniques, but not all depopulation methods meet the AVMA criteria for euthanasia. Because meeting euthanasia criteria may not be possible under emergency situations - particularly when large numbers of animals or non-typical risks to human health and safety are part of the picture - the Panel on Euthanasia believed separate guidance is needed. Activities are currently underway to convene this Panel and its Working Groups.
The duties of the veterinarian extend to handling animal remains in a safe manner appropriate for the animal and the situation. Veterinarians should be aware of or able to find pertinent regulations pertaining to the disposition of animal remains, and the AVMA has a members-only resource to help them with this.
One aspect of this responsibility is to protect other people, animals, and the environment from any drugs used during euthanasia or inappropriate disposition of animal remains. (See policies: Controlled Substances Used for Euthanasia, Animal Carcass Risk in Natural Disasters and Appropriate Carcass Disposal).
On November 3-5, 2014, the AVMA hosted a symposium, "Humane Endings - In Search of Best Practices for Euthanasia, Humane Slaughter and the Depopulation of Animals," at the Westin O'Hare (Rosemont, Illinois). Proceedings for that event, which include audiovisual footage, are available on the Symposium webpage.