Another Round of Handwringing Over DIY Firearm Euthanasia

Patty Khuly, DVM
Published: July 01, 2011
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The issue of DIY euthanasia comes up about once a year, at least. Whether we’re talking CO2 chambers or shotguns, it’s undeniably a stressful subject. But when you add misinformation to the mix, it amps up the angst in ways that can reverberate throughout the Internet like … well … like a gunshot in the wilderness.

Here’s the deal: A Fully Vetted regular e-mailed me this morning. She was distressed over what she’d read in a popular Internet horse forum. The subject was euthanasia. More specifically, it was to do with whether euthanasia of horses (and even dogs) should ideally be accomplished via firearm over what the thread repeatedly referred to as "JUICE." (Yes, all caps.)

Heavy-handed language aside (little in our veterinary jargon vexes me more than euthanasia slang), what’s worse is that the thread had been hijacked by someone who’d taken it upon herself to promulgate the use of firearms in the practice of euthanasia as superior to the veterinarian’s "JUICE."

Here’s a taste:

  • "A horse is not 'DEAD' before they hit the ground. Heart is stopped, but the brain takes anywhere from 5-15 minutes to shut down if you want to get technical."
  • "Seeing EEG's myself, animals CAN react to pain while in these sleeps. Watching EEG's on a dog that is put to sleep showed me that they are panicking when the heart stops. But we don't 'see' it because their body is 'paralyzed' and they are 'sedated' consciously."
  • "Animals don't always 'agree' with our plan. I've had a dog jump up and practically off the table. I've watched a cat fall off the table after I knew it was dead. They were 'DEAD.' But brain was still working."

The writer then goes on to inform us that the only method of death that can reliably stop the brain instantly is a bullet to the brain. (I think Rep. Giffords of Arizona might disagree.)

There’s so much alarmist misinformation here I don’t know where to start. But let’s reference the AVMA’s incredibly detailed document on the subject, the 2000 Report of the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia (here’s the link to the PDF but you’ll have to pay for it if you’re not a member).

For pain to be experienced, the cerebral cortex and subcortical structures must be functional. If the cerebral cortex is nonfunctional because of hypoxia, depression by drugs, electric shock, or concussion, pain is not experienced. Therefore, the choice of the euthanasia agent or method is less critical if it is to be used on an animal that is anesthetized or unconscious, provided that the animal does not regain consciousness prior to death.

So as long as the drug renders the animal unconscious there is no pain that can be felt. No dancing EEGs as evidence of panic. (I don’t know where this person saw an EEG on an animal. Indeed, I haven’t seen one since vet school.) And since none of the euthanasia drugs modern veterinary medicine uses for euthanasia are paralytics (they all induce unconsciousness, not paralysis), I can safely conclude this horrendous (and apparently popular) thread is a menace to pet owners everywhere who might read it and weep. (No doubt many have.)

So what does the AVMA’s elite panel have to say on the subject of gunshots? That it’s conditionally acceptable in the case of an emergency:

Given the need to minimize stress induced by handling and human contact, gunshot may at times be the most practical and logical method of euthanasia of wild or free-ranging species.

Unfortunately, it also concludes that "under field conditions, it may be difficult to hit the vital target area." (I’ve heard some nasty stories about gunshots gone wrong in horses.)

So how did I respond when my reader asked me whether any of this was true? Here was my brief answer on the gunshot thing:

On balance I do believe gunshots can be very humane. I just don't believe they are always humane, especially when firearms are in the hands of people who never use them except when irresponsibly urged to euthanize their horse, dog or cat with them on the basis of veterinary euthanasia's mis-perceived shortcomings.

I then spent a few more minutes writing to the horse forum’s complaint department:

There's a euthanasia thread on your site that's loaded with the kind of irresponsible misinformation I'm sure you do not want to propagate. Please consider taking down the thread or allowing a moderator to step in early on to correct some of the incorrect comments that have been made.

I would have let it go were it not for the fact that this particular brand of non-factual information leads to needless anxiety among pet owners. Euthanasia is too fraught a subject to allow erroneous offerings to simmer on the Web as we all know they can.

Please do the humane thing and address this problem so that your readers can sleep at night without visions of their horses, dogs, and cats suffering pain in their last moments of life.

But there’s misinformation everywhere on the web, you say. Why take it out on a four year-old thread? I would argue that its popularity among the search engines is more important than the date it was written, but you’d be right. This thread represents just one more drop in the bucket. Still, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to erase it. After all, euthanasia doesn’t have a monopoly on ending suffering. It can be prevented one thread at a time, too.

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: hands up cat by orangeobject

shoot the kitten, euthanasia by gunshot, shooting animals