Students strong on farm animal welfare - Veterinary Practice
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Students strong on farm animal welfare

Graham Duncanson had a lively time with students at the Nottingham veterinary school and was impressed both by their knowledge of the welfare needs of farm animals – and their concerns.

NOT so long ago I attended and spoke at a meeting of students at the Nottingham veterinary school, organised by the BVA Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF). It was sponsored by CEVA and very well attended.

The mission statement of the AWF is to improve the welfare of all animals through veterinary science, education and debate. Debate was top of the agenda. The students limited the evening to farm animals, i.e. cattle, sheep and pigs, but horses, goats, camelids and deer were briefly included.

Methods of euthanasia

The use of a rearm using a free bullet was discussed. The necessity of the individual veterinary surgeon having a rearm licence was stressed. Mention was made that if an animal suffering from tetanus, particularly a horse, was shot, the practitioner should take special care not to stand in front of the animal, as they died in spasm and therefore tended to lunge forward dangerously.

The use of a captive bolt gun does not require a rearm licence but it was stressed that if it was used for euthanasia of adult cattle, it should also be pithed to ensure a rapid humane death. The danger of damage to the wrist was mentioned if such an instrument was used for euthanasia of a horse. There was complete agreement that RSPCA officers should be permitted to carry and use captive bolt guns on deer provided they had been adequately trained and provided any large deer were pithed if that was appropriate.

The use of a shotgun was of interest to the students. They were unaware that it could be used either by a qualified veterinary surgeon or by the owner of the animal provided the owner of the gun had a shotgun licence and gave his permission. The students were naturally aware of the use of chemicals for euthanasia of farm animals but decided not to discuss the actual chemicals until they had received lectures on them.

There was a lively discussion on the use of a blow of a blunt instrument on the head for euthanasia of baby pigs and other animals too small to be shot. Over 75% of the audience felt that welfare standards would not be compromised provided farmers had received adequate instruction.

The whole audience was agreed that death by severance of major blood vessels without prior stunning was a very emotive topic. They felt that the whole subject of religious slaughter should be discussed at a specific debate. The debate that night was centred on euthanasia rather than slaughter. The audience felt that severance of the dorsal aorta in horses and cows per rectum for euthanasia was not acceptable.

Only half of the audience were aware of guidelines which have been agreed by the insurance companies with the BEVA. The guidelines help practitioners to decide if a horse suffering from a list of life-threatening, untreatable and painful conditions would be eligible for mortality insurance. They have a definite welfare implication as it was agreed that immediate euthanasia was preferable to transport to a hospital before euthanasia.

Cattle conditions

Conditions of cattle which might require immediate euthanasia were divided into three groups: recumbent cows, parturient cows and other conditions.

The definition of a true downer cow was discussed. It was agreed: that these animals were recumbent cows where no definitive diagnosis for their recumbency had been made; that they ate and drank normally; and that they did not have pyrexia and were not suffering with any known trauma.

It was suggested that unless a practitioner was very experienced, a prognosis was difficult but that rising serum CK levels indicated a poor prognosis. The audience stressed that downer cows needed to be rolled regularly and kept on a suitable surface, definitely not concrete. Several delegates felt every downer cow had a right to be hoisted at least once to see if, with a little help, standing was possible.

  • Hypomagnesaemia. The welfare implications were difficult with this disease. Magnesium blood levels could relatively easily be raised to normal limits by injections; however, the animals would still be showing neurological signs. The audience felt, therefore, that euthanasia was appropriate for animals unable to rise showing neurological signs.
  • Toxic mastitis. The audience in general were not aware that there is a mortality rate of 33% in cases of toxic mastitis.  Students felt that practitioners should stress this to farmers so that euthanasia was prompt if death seemed likely.
  • Long bone fracture. It was agreed that these fractures were rare but that it was vital that they were diagnosed as early as possible so euthanasia was prompt and the cases were not left recumbent without veterinary evaluation.
  • Abdominal catastrophe. This was felt to be too wide a diagnosis for a worthwhile discussion. There was agreement that ultrasonography could be useful but the gold standard was a laparotomy to be carried out promptly and then the decision for euthanasia would be straightforward if surgical correction could not be accomplished.
  • Oesophageal rupture. It was decided that this warranted immediate euthanasia. The audience felt that there should be zero tolerance of farmers who try to dislodge oesophageal foreign bodies, e.g. potatoes, with inappropriate instruments.
  • RTAs. These in adult cattle are extremely rare. The need for euthanasia should be based on the degree of damage sustained. Discussion of parturient cows followed.
  • Caesarean section. The audience considered that the decision to carry out a caesarean section should be made rapidly from a welfare stance.
  • Foetotomy. The lack of experience of the audience made a discussion on the merits of a foetotomy unlikely to be helpful. There was total agreement that if calves were stuck by their hips at the pelvic inlet of the cow, then a foetotomy should be carried out immediately. If the calf was still alive then it should be euthanased if extraction was not possible, and then a foetotomy should be performed.
  • Uterine tear. There was some confusion on where a uterine tear could have occurred. One speaker felt that attempts should be made to repair the tear through a laparotomy incision. The consensus was that this was so unlikely to be lifesaving that euthanasia would be necessary.
  • Rupture of the middle uterine artery. If this occurs at parturition it is rarely a reason for euthanasia as either the poor cow dies in a couple of minutes or the artery can be grasped with artery forceps and survival is a reality. It was stressed that in these cases antibiotic cover should be provided for a minimum of 10 days as if the clot in the artery becomes infected the animal will develop uncontrollable secondary haemorrhage.
  • Prolapsed uterus. There was a useful discussion on this condition. It appears that individuals look at the condition and the likely outcome from different perspectives. In the author’s view, the condition if treated within six hours has a very high recovery rate and a reasonable, i.e. over 50%, chance of retaining fertility. Other authors (Gregory, 2011) feel that cows suffering with uterine prolapse are extremely likely to be welfare cases. The students did not share this view.

Other conditions of cattle discussed included…

  • Perforated rectum. The students were very worried about this condition but not, I suspect, from a welfare perspective. Welfare is straightforward. If a practitioner is faced with the disaster of an iatrogenic perforated rectum, euthanasia should be carried out without delay.
  • Epistaxis. The audience were familiar with the causation of this relatively rare condition. It was agreed that the decision for euthanasia would not be an issue.
  • Mucosal disease. Mercifully, the financial problems faced by farmers with cattle exhibiting this disease dictate action which is welfare-friendly.
  • Anthrax. The students decided that there were no welfare implications with this disease in cattle as animals would be found dead and therefore any suffering would have been extremely short.
  • Fog fever. In the author’s experience this condition is now rare. The audience were well briefed on the disease. They were particularly mindful of the danger of sudden death if animals affected by this disease were chased. They felt therefore that welfare was not likely to be a problem.
  • Drowning. Adult cattle often get into ditches and cannot get out but cases of drowning are very rare. The author urged the audience to attend the excellent course organised by the Hampshire Fire Service on ways of rescuing large animals.

The gathering also considered conditions of pigs which might require immediate euthanasia.

  • Prolapsed rectum. This common condition both in fattening pigs and sows was not likely to raise a debate on welfare issues. Prompt treatment should be carried out under local anaesthetic.
  • Prolapsed vagina. Once again prompt treatment would resolve any welfare issue.
  • Prolapsed uterus. If this condition occurs in a commercial situation then there is unlikely to be a debate and prompt euthanasia should be carried out.
  • Torsion of one uterine horn. Both torsion of the body of the uterus and torsion of a single horn were discussed from a welfare perspective. Torsion of the body was not felt to be an issue as treatment for a farm sow would be euthanasia and for a pet sow would be a GA and rolling. On the other hand, torsion of a single horn would be likely to cause a welfare issue. There would be a temptation to leave the sow in labour and try small doses of oxytocin. This would be ineffective. The correct treatment would be to give the sow
    a GA and carry out a caesarean section.
  • Burns. Burns in pigs, particularly in small herds, are common because of the use of heat lamps for piglets. The audience felt that practitioners should have guidelines to help decide on when euthanasia should be carried out rather than treatment. If more than 25% of the skin area has been damaged, then on welfare grounds euthanasia should be carried out.
  • Fractures. The audience felt that these might cause welfare problems in commercial herds. It is vital that pig keepers do not just put lame pigs into hospital pens without examining them properly. The room felt that pet pigs were much more likely to be brought to veterinary attention.
  • Incurable arthritis. Everyone agreed that allowing pigs with incurable arthritis to survive was not acceptable. If animals receiving treatment with NSAIDs did not improve then prolonged treatment would create welfare problems.

There was also much discussion on matters affecting goats and sheep.


The whole welfare discussion ended with a plea for veterinary practitioners to work closely with the knackermen in the area so there was minimum delay in the euthanasia of farm animals.

The gold standard was agreed to be that practitioners would carry out the euthanasia.

The author was extremely impressed with the sensible, well-thought-out arguments debated by the students. He feels that if the audience is representative of the majority of today’s students, then the welfare of farm animals in the future under their control will be assured.


Gregory, N. (2011) Problems associated with cattle welfare. In Practice 33: 328-333.

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