Veterinary Handbook Disease Finder

Veterinary Handbook Contents

8.2 Management Options

8.2.1 Euthanasia

The overriding consideration for euthanasia is the welfare of the animal - the level of pain and distress. The level of pain and distress warranting euthanasia is a matter of judgment taking into consideration changes in behaviour (activity, aggression, posture, response to handling, vocalisation) and clinical signs (demeanour, respiration rate, heart rate, weight loss, dehydration, urine production).

In the export process, euthanasia is usually a clear-cut decision for animals that have conditions severe enough to prevent them from standing and walking, particularly if these conditions are unlikely to improve rapidly with treatment.

Euthanasia may also be the best option for animals that have conditions with a poor prognosis or where appropriate treatment is difficult, prolonged or very expensive relative to the value of the animal. 

In situations where downer animals are able to maintain sternal recumbency (sitting up), and are alert, eating, drinking, attempt to rise when encouraged and have been down for less than 48 hours, it is considered appropriate to continue administering treatment if conditions allow. Animals not fully matching these descriptors have a very poor prognosis and should be euthanised without delay. There may also be other overriding considerations favouring euthanasia. Common overriding considerations include insufficient resources to treat properly (downers require considerable nursing including soft bedding and good footing, regular rolling and lifting, and feeding and watering) and insufficient time available for full recovery of their ability to walk (which can sometimes take weeks). 

Key considerations when considering euthanasia include:
  • Uncontrollable level of pain and distress.
  • Unable to stand or walk.
  • Uncertain accuracy of diagnosis and severe nature or late stage of disease.
  • Value of diagnostic information obtained from necropsy.
  • Poor prognosis.
  • Inadequacy of treatment facilities and staff resources.
  • High risk to staff and animal cohorts.
  • Inadequate time available for recovery.
  • Unsuitable for salvage slaughter or salvage slaughter is unavailable.

8.2.2 Slaughter For Salvage Value

Slaughter for salvage value may be considered for animals where recovery is unlikely or incomplete, treatment facilities are inadequate or there is insufficient time available for effective treatment and full recovery. It becomes an option when there is a nearby slaughter facility and transport is available to that facility. A veterinary opinion may need to be sought for advice on the fitness of the animal for transport. Strong consideration should be given to the animal’s existing level of pain and distress and what might happen should the process not go according to plan. The animal should also be free of antibiotic and chemical residues, have a low likelihood of being condemned for disease, and be fit for the journey. 

Key considerations when considering salvage slaughter include:
  • Facilities are available at destination for transport and slaughter.
  • The animal has been deemed fit for transport, including by a veterinarian if necessary.
  • The animal can withstand further handling after transport.
  • Carcase condemnation is unlikely.
  • Drug and chemical withholding periods have expired.

8.2.3 Treatment

Treatment refers to the application of nursing care, administration of therapeutic compound(s), or surgery. Nursing care refers to provision of separate or specialised care in a hospital pen or defined area including for example provision of shelter, bedding and good quality feed and water. Treatment is an option when the value of the animal exceeds the full cost of treatment, the prognosis with treatment is good and the time to recovery fits within the different stages of the export process. The full cost of treatments is easily underestimated. 

A simple formula to gauge cost-effectiveness of treatment can assist the decision to treat or not to treat. The formula is C = V x P where C is cost-effective value of treatment, V is value of the animal and P is the probability of recovery with treatment. 

For example, if a steer with pneumonia is worth $1,000 then spending up to, but not more than $1,000 on treatment is cost-effective. If the steer, based on clinical findings and experience, has a 30% chance of full recovery with treatment and therefore a 30% chance of resuming its value of $1,000, then it is cost-effective to spend up to $300 (30% x $1,000) on treatment. 

This calculation can be useful to help make a decision although there is always uncertainty about the diagnosis, the effectiveness of treatment, the cost of treatment (mainly time) and the likelihood and time of full recovery. It should be used along with other considerations, but the animal’s welfare is paramount. Other prominent considerations include the time and resources available to treat, prognosis with and without treatment and whether the time and resources, if limited, might be better spent elsewhere. Making a prognosis for a given case requires taking into account a range of uncertainties including accuracy of diagnosis, effectiveness of treatment, time to recovery, and level of recovery. 

Making a prognosis in the export process can sometimes be difficult because time, facilities and diagnostic back up are often unavailable. In some cases the particular constraints associated with export (no access to laboratory support, no opportunity for salvage slaughter, limited treatment options) can make the decision process simpler. 

It is important to monitor animals following any treatment, to determine the response and revisit the diagnosis, prognosis and management of the case. Rapid improvements over a few hours or days in demeanour, appetite and mobility usually indicate ongoing treatment will be rewarded. Little or no improvement may stimulate change of treatment or a decision to euthanise or slaughter for salvage value. 

Decisions about whether to treat and which treatment to use are also influenced by the time remaining before the next phase of the export process. Animals treated at assembly points must be recovered in time for loading, animals treated at sea must be recovered in time for discharge, and animals treated at destination must be recovered sufficiently and be residue free at the time of slaughter. 

It is important for veterinarians and stockpersons to have had a discussion with the exporter about how sick and injured animals aboard should be dealt with in the final stages of the voyage close to or at the destination port. Decisions on euthanasia and what is fit for unloading may be left to the professional judgment of the veterinarian or stockperson. However, making these decisions may be assisted by knowledge of previous experiences with importing inspectors and the importer, the opportunities for salvage slaughter or ongoing treatment at the destination feedlot, and other local factors. 

Key considerations supporting a decision to implement treatment include:
  • Pain and distress are controllable.
  • The value of the animal is greater than the full cost of treatment including opportunity cost[5].
  • There is a high likelihood of recovery with treatment.
  • Risk of disease and injury to other animals and people is controllable.
  • Skill, time and facilities are available to treat properly including at further stages along the export process.
  • Sufficient time is available for recovery before discharge at destination.
  • Sufficient time is available to meet drug withdrawal periods.
  • The rate of response to treatment is encouraging.
5. Opportunity cost of treatment is where time, money and effort are better spent elsewhere

8.2.4 Monitoring

Monitoring refers to the situation where an animal is observed for a period of time without necessarily initiating any other treatment. If there is little improvement or deterioration in signs, then intervention should be considered (treatment, salvage slaughter or euthanasia). If the animal shows improvement or spontaneous resolution of signs of illness, then routine care may be resumed. 

Monitoring is an option for animals with mild sickness or injury below the threshold of symptoms where intervention is considered necessary. It may also be appropriate for cases for which restraint may cause undesirable levels of stress. If the animal deteriorates or fails to improve, then intervention of some sort should be considered using information outlined in the previous sections of this chapter. 

Key considerations supporting a decision to monitor an animal include:
  • Pain and discomfort are below the threshold for intervention.
  • Resources are available for monitoring.
  • Treatment may do more harm than good, in terms of stress on the animal.
  • Disease will not worsen or spread to other animals.