Broaching a Difficult Subject: The Proper Euthanasia of Bovids

Jan Shearer speaking on humane euthanasia of bovids, at the UCVM Beef Cattle Conference in 2015.

There are few things on livestock operations more difficult than deciding whether or not to euthanize an animal. And according to Jan Shearer, professor at Iowa State University, we tend to let that decision go on way too long.

Jan Shearer speaking at the UCVM Beef Cattle Conference.

Jan Shearer speaking at the UCVM Beef Cattle Conference.

Shearer was a speaker at this year’s UCVM Beef Cattle Conference pre-conference, where he spoke on the difficult subject.

“It is a difficult subject indeed. And it’s such an important issue because the reality is, in animals, there are certain situations and certain circumstances…where the pain is excruciating and there’s no other way to relieve it. There’s no medical means to relieve their misery and suffering.”

And perhaps our discomfort with euthanasia is a bigger problem than we would like to believe. It too often holds us back from seriously broaching the subject, let alone beginning to understand how to approach it, should the need arise.

“No one wants to do it. No one likes to do it at all,” says Shearer, “but it’s an important part of what we do in the livestock industry to ensure the welfare of animals.”

According to the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals, acceptable methods for euthanasia of bovids include:

  1. Barbiturates and barbituric acid derivatives
  2. Gunshot
  3. Penetrating captive bolt (when paired with adjunctive methods)

While barbiturates and barbituric acid derivatives are preferential to most people, their cost is often prohibitive, and most primary producers do not own penetrating captive bolts. Firearms are thus the mostly likely tool for in-field euthanasia, and as Shearer tells us in the following video interview, there are further considerations when it comes to proper gun and bullet choice, distance and target location.

Choosing a Firearm

Shearer’s presentation summarized firearm selection as follows:

Hand gun – .32-.45
Rifle – .22 magnum or higher
.22 long rifle is not recommended for euthanasia of adult cattle.
Shot Gun – .410 to 28 gauge for calves, and 12, 16 or 20 gauge for cows

Though the target location will not change for various firearms, the distance may vary. Have a listen to the full interview with Shearer to hear more, or take a look at the AVMA Guidelines (p. 52) for more information.

Correct Bullets

Solid-point bullets are preferred over hollow-point, for proper penetration of the skull and adequate damage to the brain stem. If using birdshot in a shotgun, ensure close range, but do not hold the gun directly against the animal’s head. Again, refer to AVMA Guidelines (p. 52) for more information.


Draw two imaginary lines extending from the outside of the animal’s eye to the base of the opposite horn (or where a horn would be in polled animals). The intersection of these lines indicates the ideal location for perpendicular target.

See Figure 10 in the AVMA Guidelines (p. 53).

Following euthanasia, confirmation of death is essential, and should include looking for and finding a lack of pulse, breathing, corneal reflex and response to toe pinch, among others. According again to the AVMA Guidelines, no sign alone, except rigor mortis, confirms death.

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