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When and how to euthanize calves

Frank Garry Published on 24 February 2015

Every good calf manager strives to achieve optimal calf health and growth. It’s a fact of life, however, that some calves will get sick.

Therefore, managers also have plans for identifying and treating diseased calves. Ideally, if sick calves are identified promptly and treated appropriately, they will recover and go on to be healthy productive adults.



Even with the best-laid plans, some calves will not respond to treatment. Some calves will be born with congenital anomalies. Some diseases, like septicemia, respond poorly to treatment. Some problems, like severe frostbite with necrosis of a foot, are not repairable. In other words, even on the best operations some calves will have problems that cannot be solved. What should we do about these calves?

With good management, we strive to keep these occurrences as infrequent as possible. But as a good friend of mine once said, “If you never want to have a dead calf, don’t raise calves.” The outcome of some calf diseases will almost certainly be death.

In many cases, we can tell ahead of time this is the case for certain individuals. Should we just let them die? Should we allow them to suffer through the process? I think we would all agree this would be an inappropriate course of action. Therefore, every good calf manager also needs a plan for euthanasia.

Euthanasia can be defined as the intentional causing of a painless and easy death to a patient suffering from an incurable or painful disease. While this might sound like an unpleasant task and one we don’t want to do frequently, it may not sound very complicated. But in fact there are many things you will want to consider to make a good euthanasia plan.

First you will want to have carefully thought out the criteria for euthanasia on your operation. These include decisions about the calf’s likelihood of recovery, its ability to get feed and water, or whether the calf’s problem is causing pain and distress.


Euthanasia may be an option when disease treatment is not economical for cases with an extremely poor prognosis. You might choose to euthanize a sick calf to obtain the best diagnostics when the illness is affecting many calves in the herd.

Because these types of considerations are complicated and require judgment, you will want to have a plan that defines who is responsible for making the decision to euthanize. When is euthanasia the best option? How will it be performed?

Who is authorized to perform it? How will you dispose of the carcass? This last consideration can be particularly important if chemicals are used in the euthanasia because some chemicals can be toxic if wildlife or other animals consume the carcass.

The choice of “who” makes the decision to euthanize and “who” actually performs the euthanasia also requires careful thought. Not only should that person have the authority to perform it, but they also need to be able to accept that responsibility.

Often the people who take care of calves will have difficulty making the decision or performing the task. After all, these are the people who have emotion and time invested in the calves, and deciding to terminate a life can be traumatic.

There are many ways to perform euthanasia. It’s important to choose a method that fits your operation. Some methods, such as firearms, present human safety hazards. Other issues include the practicality of the method, the amount of skill required to employ it, the cost and the aesthetics. For example, one method of euthanasia involves rendering the animal unconscious before bleeding it out. Is it OK to have a pool of blood on the ground, and if so, where?


You will want to know that not every means of ending the calf’s life qualifies as euthanasia. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) defines three critical elements of a humane death. First, the animal must become rapidly unconscious. Stress and anxiety must be minimized during this process.

Only after the animal is unconscious should the heart and respiratory system stop functioning, which in turn leads to death. In the past, some people have used chemicals, such as disinfectants, injected intravenously, to kill an animal. Such methods are unacceptable because they stop the heart and lungs of a conscious animal, causing the animal to suffer before it dies.

The methods of euthanasia approved by the AVMA include three categories. First are drugs that directly depress the central nervous system and the neurons vital for life function. The ideal euthanasia agents that accomplish this are the barbiturate drugs.

These drugs are most commonly used by small-animal practitioners asked to euthanize pets. Unfortunately they are dangerous drugs, very expensive and heavily regulated. Consequently, they are rarely used to euthanize farm animals.

A second method involves physical disruption of brain activity. This can be accomplished with a firearm. It is critically important that the shot is in the right location with the right direction so that it destroys the centers of consciousness plus the midbrain and hindbrain that cause the heart and lungs to function.

But we all know that firearms are inherently dangerous, and most producers would agree there needs to be a good plan to avoid human injury. An alternative is a captive bolt pistol, which operates like a firearm but shoots a steel rod that retracts back into the barrel rather than a bullet with a free trajectory. Either method requires appropriate training to be used properly.

A third method involves the use of anesthetics that induce unconsciousness followed by a method that causes hypoxia and the cessation of life function. Once the animal is unconscious, there are many ways to stop the heart and lungs, such as bleeding the animal out or injecting chemicals that stop the heart. As with barbiturates, this method necessitates access to dangerous anesthetic agents.

It is easy to see why a plan for euthanasia is important for every operation. On the one hand, there is a moral imperative that the animals in our care do not suffer. Therefore, virtually every operation will encounter times when euthanasia is the best option for a particular animal.

On the other hand, the plan for euthanasia should be carefully thought through ahead of time. There should be common knowledge on the farm about who is in charge of euthanasia and when they should be contacted.

I highly recommend that every producer have an in-depth discussion with their veterinarian to devise the right plan for euthanasia. It is very likely there will be instances when the veterinarian is not available to perform the task and farm personnel should be well informed about what needs to be done.

A good resource that discusses each of the important considerations has been provided by the American Association of Bovine Practitioners.

Once a plan is determined that is most appropriate for the farm, you can consider it like an animal welfare insurance policy: You hope you don’t need it often, but it’s very important when you do.PD

Frank Garry, a veterinarian and professor of clinical sciences at Colorado State University, originally presented this information at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s Calf Care Connection event in October 2014. His presentation was entitled “When and how to properly euthanize calves.”

frank garry

Frank Garry
Departmentof Clinical Sciences
Colorado State University