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Can Vet J. 2010 January; 51(1): 27–30.
PMCID: PMC2797346

Veterinary Medical Ethics

Ethical question of the month — January 2010

Assessing animal welfare in an individual animal can be difficult, but judging the welfare of animals in a herd or flock is even more problematic. Most food animal veterinarians service some farms where the sick pens are always full and the treatment success rate in those pens is uncharacteristically low. This pattern is consistent on these farms and, over time, both the producer and the veterinarian accept this as being normal. Practitioners understand that not all producers possess equivalent husbandry skills and some will always be far below average. Nevertheless, farmers with substandard husbandry skills are often committed to their farms and work long hours. These farmers struggle as much to survive financially as the animals struggle to survive the substandard husbandry practices. Veterinarians find it frustrating to work in these situations for a number of reasons, including the overall welfare of the livestock. Do they have a choice?

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Responses to the case presented are welcome. Please limit your reply to approximately 50 words and forward along with your name and address to: Ethical Choices, c/o Dr. Tim Blackwell, Veterinary Science, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, 6484 Wellington Road 7, Unit 10, Elora, Ontario N0B 1S0; telephone: (519) 846-3413; fax: (519) 846-8178; e-mail:

Suggested ethical questions of the month are also welcome! All ethical questions or scenarios in the ethics column are based on actual events, which are changed, including names, locations, species, etc., to protect the confidentiality of the parties involved.

Ethical question of the month — October 2009

The public generally regards euthanasia in terms of individual animals. Their experience is often limited to chemical injection in companion animals. However, large numbers of animals are killed using humane methods for food, for research, and for the control of exotic disease outbreaks. Regardless of why an animal is killed, the public believes that such deaths should be the quickest and most painless possible. When large numbers of animals must be killed in a short period of time, such as in a slaughter plant or in an exotic disease eradication effort, methods such as carbon dioxide (CO2) inhalation are commonly practiced. When CO2 is used as the sole agent to kill animals, it takes between 30 and 90 seconds to render the animals unconscious, during which time they experience some degree of discomfort. On the other hand, the more classic euthanasia techniques such as chemical injections or captive bolt stunning followed by exsanguination can suffer from operator error and are very time-consuming when applied to large groups of animals. In addition, these “hands on” methods of killing create stress on the individuals performing the procedures. Chemical injections cannot be used in slaughter plants and create a problem when contaminated carcasses must be disposed of in an exotic disease eradication effort. Is the quickest and most painless death possible simply an unrealistic expectation in large slaughter establishments or in the event of a foreign animal disease outbreak?


If current euthanasia protocols for killing large numbers of animals do not match our goals for a quick and painless death, these protocols should be scrutinized and investigation into better euthanasia techniques should receive as much attention as development of new therapies. We should not change our standards simply because we have not yet found a way to live up to them.

Amanda Salb, DVM, 4907 West Pine Boulevard, Apartment 213, Saint Louis, Missouri 63108, USA

An ethicist’s commentary on euthanasia in difficult circumstances

No one can doubt that crises, disasters, and catastrophes test the limits of ethicality. At the same time, few of us would argue that such extraordinary situations would justify destroying these ethical boundaries, that thin line that separates us from barbarism. This is readily evident in human ethics in our society. Treaties such as the Geneva Convention and the Hague Convention limit what sorts of weapons can be used in war, what sort of treatment must be given to enemy combatants, and so forth. Weapons such as poisoned bullets and poison gas are prohibited.

Similarly, there are strict constraints on how spies and terrorists may be interrogated. Torture is prohibited (at least in theory), even when extraction of information could save innocent lives. Ethical constraints dictate proper treatment for monsters like Hitler, Pol Pot, or Osama bin Laden. The same holds true for serial killers and child murderers. In short, even patently guilty paradigms of evil are treated morally.

In contrast, animals are paradigmatically innocent. We hurt them and kill them for our purposes, ranging from sport to food to research. We avoid engaging the ethical issues such use occasions directly, but minimally commit to providing these animals a good death — except when doing so is inconvenient or expensive.

Consider: We kill most laboratory rodents, more than 90% of the animals used in research, by use of CO2. I have argued in this journal (Ethics and Euthanasia, Can Vet J 2009;50:1081–1086) that CO2 causes death by suffocation, which is by no stretch of the imagination a good death. We “depopulate” disease-ridden chicken houses by use of suffocating foam. Not too long ago, the USDA killed infected pigs with paralytic drugs, and humane societies used bludgeoning, car exhaust, and drowning to kill unwanted animals.

It appears to me an ethical imperative to provide a decent, non-fearful, and non-painful death to the animals we use for human convenience; cost and “practicality” should not forestall this imperative. Sometimes there are decent deaths that are “too much trouble” to provide — after all, we could kill rodents with pentobarbital injections, the gold standard for euthanasia, but that is too labor-intensive. As I showed in my Ethics and Euthanasia article, the AVMA Guidelines repeatedly sacrifice a decent death to the pressures of convenience or practicality. If there truly are insurmountable practical impediments to providing a good death, research into alternative methods should be a top priority. That is no outlandish radical demand, but a simple consequence of common decency. The United States’ swine industry has taken a major step forward in issuing a request for proposals researching better methods of killing than CO2.


Use of this article is limited to a single copy for personal study. Anyone interested in obtaining reprints should contact the CVMA office ( gro.vmca-amvc@nothguorbh) for additional copies or permission to use this material elsewhere.

Articles from The Canadian Veterinary Journal are provided here courtesy of Canadian Veterinary Medical Association