Euthanasia: When and How?

By Deb Haines

Euthanasia is a very emotional, controversial, and uncomfortable subject, especially when talking to people with different backgrounds. There are two huge questions surrounding euthanasia….When and how ? It depends on your opinion on quality of life, and your morality surrounding death. Refusing to euthanize an animal no matter the circumstances, is detrimental to animal welfare. Letting an animal languish and waste up to the time when the animal dies, instead of euthanizing the animal, is increasing the amount that the animal suffers.

What is Euthanasia? Medically euthanasia is defined as “The practice of intentionally ending a life in order to relieve pain and suffering” or “Painless death”

There are 3 aspects of proper euthanasia.

1) It should cause immediate insensibility (unconsciousness),
2) It should be irreversible, and
3) It should cause no discomfort (pain or fear)

In a veterinary setting, euthanasia of poultry typically is achieved by giving an overdose of an anesthetic. Because such drugs are controlled substances, they can be administered only by personnel who are registered with the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Consequently, the use of anesthetics as a method of euthanasia is not feasible for home use. You may take a bird to a veterinarian for drug-based euthanasia, at a cost. Before doing so, it is a good idea to call to find out the veterinarian’s availability and willingness to perform this procedure. Some home flock owners use decapitation when processing poultry for meat consumption. However, cutting the jugular veins is a cleaner choice for processing chickens Commercially, poultry are electrically stunned to render them unconscious before cutting the jugular veins to bleed out the birds. More readily available and acceptable methods include gas inhalation, cervical dislocation, blunt-force trauma, captive bolt, and gunshot.

Gas Inhalation

With the use of any gas, it is important to take appropriate precautions to ensure human safety. Gases that can be used include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and inert gases. Carbon dioxide is the most commonly used gas. Using this gas will result in involuntary motor activity; the bird will be unconscious but may flap its wings. Carbon monoxide also may be used, but even more convulsions may occur. When using this method, it is important to achieve a concentration of at least 6 percent carbon monoxide quickly. Tailpipe emissions from a car are not a suitable source of carbon monoxide. Some researchers have started using the inert gases nitrogen and argon, either individually or in combination, but these gases typically are not available for backyard use. Inert gases can be obtained from a welding supply shop or soda distributor. If using an inert gas, it is preferable to double-bag a bird in heavy-weight trash bags before filling the bags with the gas. This procedure must be performed outside and never while alone.

Cervical Dislocation

The neck of a bird can be broken manually or mechanically. It is important to achieve a complete separation of the vertebrae from the skull or crushing of the spinal cord. In manual cervical dislocation, the legs of the bird are grasped, and the neck is stretched by pulling on the feet while applying a down-and-upward rotational force on the skull. This method must be performed by someone who is trained in the procedure.

Blunt-Force Trauma

Turkeys or broiler breeders that are too large for cervical dislocation can be killed by accurately hitting them on the head to cause blunt-force trauma. The back of the skull (the medulla oblongata portion of the brain) is the desired target. This method must be performed by someone who is trained in the procedure.

Captive Bolt

The captive-bolt method of euthanasia is a variation of the blunt-force-trauma method. This method involves using a captive bolt pistol, in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations. Captive bolt is suitable for large poultry, such as turkeys, broiler breeders, ratites, and waterfowl.


With free-ranging poultry and ratites where capture or restraint is not possible, shooting a bird is acceptable. Gunshot should not be used for poultry that can be caught and euthanized by other methods. If using this method, be aware of local laws that prohibit the discharge of guns within the limits of your property.

Please Remember : Animal welfare is an important matter at this end-of-life time.

What Should Happen after End-of-Life Plans Are Implemented?

After euthanasia is performed, you should proceed as if the bird were found dead. Proper disposal options include burial, composting, or municipal trash pickup (if allowed). Check to find out whether local ordinances prohibit any of these methods.

For More Information

AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2013 EditionKentucky 4-H Poultry: Evaluating Egg-Laying Hens (University of Kentucky)

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