I know decapitation is gross, but what can I say, I’m drawn to these issues. Decapitation, beheading, cervical dislocation, they’re all variations on a theme. A theme which, believe it or not, happens to play into how I treat my own animals. And this month, the JAVMA (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association) just happened to offer veterinarians a discussion to die for. 

Pardon the pun. I normally do try to refrain. But in this case it’s so apropos. After all, we’re talking about a peer-reviewed paper that delves into the humane issues surrounding decapitation as a method of euthanasia.

Though it may seem alien to most of you, decapitation is a method veterinarians and animal agriculture workers have adopted by way of euthanizing or humanely slaughtering animals that are used in laboratories and agriculture settings.

To be clear: This is not a method employed in pet medicine at any level. It is a procedure reserved for very small mammals (mice, mostly) and avians (poultry, exclusively). And until now, it has been considered a humane method of "euthansia."

This paper, however, casts doubt on our traditional view of this subject. Instead of validating the instantaneous and painless aspects of this method, as I expected, I was treated to a scholarly rebuke of decapitation. Lest any doubts remain, here are the findings in the paper’s final summary:

Despite all of the contradictory statements and competing opinions existing in the literature, these facts stand out:

  • Severing the spinal cord and the tissues immediately surrounding it is likely painful. 8,17,36
  • Decapitation induces desynchronization of the EEG pattern (ie, conversion of HVSA to LVFA). 1,17–20
  • The LVFA pattern is most consistent with a state of conscious awareness. 10,15,16
  • Various noxious stimuli applied to animals in experimental settings induce desynchronization of the EEG pattern; the use of local anesthetics prior to the trauma can block desynchronization. 22,27,28,30–32
  • The LVFA pattern seen in the brains of endothermic animals following decapitation can persist for anywhere from 8 to 29 seconds. 1,17–20
  • No new data have been published to demonstrate that decapitated animals do not potentially experience persistent consciousness.

Viewed in toto, the almost inescapable conclusion from these facts is that decapitation is a painful procedure and that conscious awareness may persist for up to 29 seconds in the disembodied heads. This comports poorly with the strict definition of euthanasia.

Ouch! Literally. So now how is it that I can slaughter my chickens? Until now, I’ve labored under the clearly misguided belief that cervical dislocation (essentially a decapitation since it severs the spinal cord in one swift move) is a humane approach to slaughter. Now that it’s convincingly argued otherwise, how can I kill my own chickens for food?

In poultry slaughterhouses the approach is different: An electrified blade is taken to the neck so that death occurs instantaneously due to the effects of the high volts and low amps delivered by the device (if applied properly, of course). This is in accordance with the Humane Slaughter Act and is considered a painless death (though few would call this euthanasia given the stressful circumstances).

But in my home? I just pick up the bird, turn her upside down, grab her head and give it a brisk downward-and-to-the-right shake. Some flapping ensues but she’s "long gone." According to this paper, the pain was intense at the moment of the manuever’s delivery. 

So what’s a chicken farming girl to do? For the moment, I’m to stop. Reconsider. Look for alternatives. Soul search. And come to a rational conclusion. What more can I do?


Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: "Only the head" by Me