Humane endings

AVMA symposium informs ‘living document’ on animal death
Published on December 17, 2014
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When it comes to euthanasia of animals, veterinarians are ethically obliged to provide the most rapid, painless, and distress-free death as possible.

For decades, the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals have been an essential resource offering science-based recommendations on how best to provide animals a “good death.”

When the original euthanasia guidelines were written in 1963, their focus was limited to dogs, cats, and other small mammals. The latest edition, published in 2013, accounts for a broad range of animal species, from wild birds and insects to reptiles and marine mammals.

Dr. Steven Leary chairs the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia that wrote the current iteration of the guidelines. He described the work as a “living document” that can be updated as necessary to reflect novel insights into animal pain, neurobiology, cognition, and behavior. The panel is always ready to review new information that might result in the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee recommending revisions to the guidelines in the interim between the issuance of new editions.

“This is a valuable and useful approach because, as new scientific revelations are made, it’s critical to have the most current information available to make sure that we are getting euthanasia right,” explained Dr. Leary, also the assistant vice chancellor for veterinary affairs at Washington University in St. Louis.

As the panel was drafting the most recent guidelines, it determined that separate recommendations were necessary to properly address animals slaughtered for food and those killed quickly and in massive numbers, as might be necessary during a disease outbreak. At press time, the AVMA Guidelines for the Humane Slaughter of Animals was scheduled to be published in December 2014 as a free PDF on the AVMA website and as an e-book distributed through Smashwords. Work on the AVMA Guidelines for the Depopulation of Animals will commence in 2015.

In that ongoing refinement effort, late in 2014 the Association hosted a symposium where best practices for euthanasia were examined and research directed at refining those practices was explored.   

​Presenters at the Humane Endings symposium addressed a wide range of issues concerning animal euthanasia. Dr. Neal Bataller, Division of Compliance director for the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, discussed legal considerations for using pharmaceuticals to kill animals. Dr. Kristin Pufpaff of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America explained humane standards for halal slaughter of animals. (Photos by R. Scott Nolen)​ ​ ​ ​

The meeting, titled Humane Endings, was held Nov. 3-5, 2014, in suburban Chicago and was attended by veterinarians, animal scientists, government officials, industry representatives, representatives from various humane organizations, and academicians from around the world. Presentations addressed the science of animal pain and suffering and the effectiveness of various euthanasia methods. Ethical and legal issues related to intentionally inducing animal death were also addressed.  

Dr. Samuel Cartner, program chair of the Humane Endings symposium, said euthanasia is likely the most frequently performed procedure in animal care, and yet, little formal training in this area is available.

“It is important for animal welfare to ensure that pain and distress are reduced during euthanasia. The surest way of accomplishing this is to base the AVMA euthanasia guidelines on scientific evidence,” said Dr. Cartner, the assistant vice president for animal research services and director of the Animal Resources Program at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

The symposium’s primary goal was to facilitate a robust exchange of knowledge about some of the most common and important activities related to animal euthanasia, slaughter, and depopulation.

“This information will allow us to continue to protect the welfare of animals to the best of our abilities,” Dr. Cartner said.

Additional objectives were to initiate a dialogue on animal euthanasia practices among experts from other countries and to identify cultural differences and potential areas of agreement. Toward that end, a harmonization workshop was held on the final day of the symposium for those involved in policy development for foreign and domestic institutions and organizations.

Dr. Steven Niemi, director of the Office of Animal Resources at Harvard University and one of the AVMA symposium presenters, expects euthanasia will become increasingly controversial as the distinctions between humans and animals become less defined. He said humans and many other mammals are so similar in their neurological hard wiring that their respective drives—for sex, play, and community, for example—and experience of negative and positive stimuli are nearly identical.

“Neuroscience is showing we’re closer to animals than we realize,” Dr. Niemi said.

“I believe we’re going to see more and more public perception of animals either as humans or humanlike,” he added. “And because of that, we’re going to see increasing public aversion to animal death, humane or otherwise.”

The human factor is an essential ingredient in the euthanasia process. The safety of the people involved in that process is an important consideration, as are their skill at using the particular killing method and the risks of emotional and psychological trauma associated with taking an animal’s life. There’s also the matter of aesthetics.

Ironically, some particularly effective euthanasia methods, ones that cause animals to die after experiencing the least possible amount of pain and suffering, may not be viable options because the public finds the methods themselves to be offensive. Such sentiments cannot be dismissed in light of societal attitudes regarding the importance of animal life.

“Euthanasia is a complicated process, and techniques are being conducted on complicated living organisms,” Dr. Leary said. “We employ what we think is best, but given the complexities of the situation, it is difficult to say that one particular method is perfect.”

The 2013 edition of the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals is available here.

Related JAVMA content:

Providing a humane death (March 15, 2013)