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8.3 Confirming Death

It is important to immediately assess animals following an initial euthanasia procedure and be prepared to manage all possible situations.

If an animal has been killed effectively it should collapse and be absent of all sensory perception. Involuntary movements may occur immediately following euthanasia, such as leg stretching and kicking, back arching, skin twitching, gagging and gasping (agonal breathing). This is normal. The movements occur because the muscles and nerves go through a short phase of hyperexcitability as they are progressively deprived of oxygen and die. The movements are not an indication that the animal is still alive.

An animal that is conscious has sensory perception. After an unsuccessful euthanasia attempt a conscious animal may raise its head, blink or make deliberate attempts to look around and rise. It is then a matter of urgency to repeat the primary method correctly as soon as possible.

As soon as the animal is unconscious and safe to approach, the five signs forming the five finger head check (Table 8.1) should be checked to confirm death.

If one or more of the five signs is not present, the animal is considered to be unconscious and may regain consciousness. A follow-up method is then required to kill the animal.

The five finger head check associates each of the fingers of one hand to one of the signs being assessed (Table 8.1), providing a simple method of ensuring that all five signs are checked each time. Perform the five finger head check as soon as it is safe to do so after euthanasia and repeat the check a few minutes later and again before disposing of the animal.

Kneel or bend down next to the head of the animal and take your time to perform the five checks on the upper side of the head. The order is important. Assess rhythmic breathing last to give breathing some time to reappear in animals that are unconscious. In stunned animals, rhythmic breathing may reappear after a lapse of a minute or two.

Note that presence or absence of heart beat is not used to determine death. This is because the heart may continue to beat for some minutes even though the animal is brain dead. It may also be difficult to hear a rapid, weakened beat in a field situation with background noise even with a stethoscope.

Table 8.1: The five-finger head check for confirming death

Sign assessedFinger to use and method of assessment
No corneal reflex Little finger. Touch the cornea (the glassy part of the eye ball). No blink should occur. Corneal reflex is also known as the blink reflex
Pupil fixed and dilated Ring finger. Part the eyelids with ring finger and thumb if closed. In a stunned animal the pupil will usually contract into a small black spot in response to the light entering the eye. Whereas in a dead animal, the pupil is fixed and dilated.
No jaw toneMiddle finger. Part the jaws through the side of the mouth using middle finger and thumb. There should be no resistance (jaw tone).
Flaccid tongue Index finger. The tongue often flops out when the jaws are opened to test for jaw tone. The tongue should be flaccid when tugged.
No rhythmic breathing Thumb. Feel for air movement from the nostrils on the moistened palm of the hand and thumb while looking at the chest and abdomen for signs of breathing. There should be no rhythmic breathing.