Animal welfare: Humane endings

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 or 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 animals raised for food. 

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.

Human perspectives

End-of-life decision making

All 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 model euthanasia authorization form.

Humane killing techniques

Euthanasia

The AVMA Panel on Euthanasia 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, their specificity and scope have broadened.

Now in its eighth edition, the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals 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.

Humane slaughter

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 are now addressed in separate guidance documents. The AVMA Guidelines for the Humane Slaughter of Animals provide guidance for veterinarians about how to prevent pain and distress in animals that have been designated for slaughter.

Depopulation

The AVMA Guidelines for the Depopulation of Animals aim to help members of the veterinary profession make good decisions that support animal welfare in situations where the difficult decision to depopulate has been made. Funded through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the depopulation guidelines support advance planning by facilities to maximize their opportunity to use the best possible technique when depopulation is required – during emergency situations only, and when options are often highly constrained. To ensure the best possible animal welfare, the guidelines support advanced planning for possible emergency situations.

Companion animal aftercare

An owner's attachment to a pet extends beyond death. This means that sensitive handling of pet remains is an important aspect of veterinary practice. The AVMA recommends that veterinarians:

  • Encourage prior planning so owners are aware of their options and can easily communicate their preferences.
  • Be aware of all legal restrictions relating to the disposition of remains, and counsel owners accordingly.
  • Handle remains in a way that doesn't unnecessarily disturb the owner or anyone else with a valid reason to see the remains, and that provides adequate containment of the remains.
  • Use trustworthy service providers for postmortem care of remains.
  • Inspect remains received from a service provider after cremation to verify the requested services have been performed properly.

Download our companion animal aftercare brochure for more information about handling companion animal remains and selecting aftercare providers.  

Disposition of remains

The duties of the veterinarian extend to handling animal remains in a safe manner appropriate for the animal and the situation. The AVMA's animal carcass disposal resource, available exclusively to AVMA members, helps you understand the pertinent regulations pertaining to the disposition of animal remains.

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.

2014 AVMA Animal Welfare Symposium

Proceedings of the symposium on "Humane Endings - In Search of Best Practices for Euthanasia, Humane Slaughter and the Depopulation of Animals," include audiovisual footage, are available on the symposium web page.

Relevant resources

Policies

Legislation and regulation

Resources