Euthanasia of avian patients

Euthanasia of avian patients

Policy type: Policy
: 16a
: Current
Date ratified
: September 2017


This policy has been based on the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2013 Edition. We acknowledge the work that the members of the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia have contributed.

1. Legal requirements and ethical responsibilities

As veterinarians, it is our responsibility to ensure that if an animal’s life is to be taken, it is done with the highest degree of respect and with an emphasis on making the death as painless and distress free as possible. These guidelines attempt to balance the ideal of minimal pain and distress with the reality of the many environments in which euthanasia is performed.

1.1 Identification

It is essential to ensure that the animal to be euthanased is correctly identified. This is particularly important in the clinic setting where a bird may be dropped off by an owner to be euthanased when they are not present.

1.2 Informed consent

When an animal is owned, veterinarians must obtain informed consent before proceeding with euthanasia. The Veterinary Council Code of Professional Conduct details the process of obtaining informed consent. If the owner is under 18 years of age, has language difficulties or a limited mental capacity to provide consent, consideration should be given to identifying a support agent (such as a parent or interpreter) to assist. While consent may be given verbally and the process recorded in the medical record, validating the process by obtaining the client’s signature on a euthanasia consent form provides additional protection.

1.3 Birds presented by an agent

When an animal is presented by an agent, rather than an owner, for euthanasia, it is important to take all necessary steps to assure yourself that the agent has the authority to act on behalf of the owner.

Ownership can be difficult to verify in birds, particularly if they are not microchipped or banded. Suitable enquiries should be made if the bird is not presented by its owner, to establish the facts and ensure the decision is genuine. Document all the steps taken to investigate the situation and ensure a signed euthanasia consent form is obtained.

1.4 Pet birds presented without any owner or agent

1.4.1 Euthanasia performed under section 138 of the Animal Welfare Act (1999)

In the case of a “severely injured or sick animal” presented to a veterinarian without an owner, under section 138 of the Animal Welfare Act (1999), veterinarians have the authority and an obligation to euthanase the animal, ONLY if “reasonable treatment will not be sufficient to make the animal respond and the animal will suffer unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress if it continues to live” and the owner cannot be found within a reasonable time. There is no other situation that allows for veterinarians to legally euthanase an animal without an owner’s consent.

The Veterinary Council Code of Professional Conduct states “that where veterinarians act independently in reliance on section 138, they must be very sure that they follow all the obligatory procedural steps to minimise the risk of associated legal liability and should document the same”.

Where it is possible that the bird is owned, involve an SPCA inspector. If no inspector is available, contact a member of the police as they are deemed to be inspectors under the Animal Welfare Act of 1999. If the delay will not further compromise the severely sick or injured animal’s welfare, you can consider contacting VCNZ, NZVA or MPI animal welfare to discuss the case prior to acting.

1.5 Wildlife

1.5.1 Non-native, not protected birds

Where it is obvious that there is no person in charge of the bird (e.g. pigeons, mallards, magpies, blackbirds, thrushes etc), and the bird is severely injured or sick, the veterinarian is able to proceed with euthanasia of the bird without involving another authority.

1.5.2 Native and/or protected birds

If the veterinarian is presented with a native or protected bird that is injured or sick, it is advised to contact the Department of Conservation (DOC) as the custodians of native wildlife, prior to proceeding with euthanasia. This is especially vital for endangered wildlife. If the bird is severely injured or sick, such that its welfare is compromised, not reasonably rectifiable, and euthanasia is required to relieve suffering, the veterinarian is able to proceed with immediate euthanasia of the bird without involving any another authority, under section 138, Animal Welfare Act 1999 (see section 138 details above).

1.6 Owner’s right to a second opinion

Owners who disagree with a veterinarian’s recommendation to euthanase their pet, are entitled to seek a second opinion as long as the bird’s welfare is not further compromised. The process is outlined in the Animal Welfare Act 1999.

2. Handling and restraint

The welfare aspects of all procedures that occur prior to irreversible loss of consciousness of the bird should be considered. These include any restraint and handling of the bird for the purposes of administering pre-euthanasia sedatives and anaesthetics, as well as for the ultimate lethal method. Proper handling is vital to minimise pain and distress in birds and to ensure the safety of the personnel performing the euthanasia.

Some latitude is needed to account for birds that are not accustomed to humans or that are severely injured or otherwise compromised. Personnel who perform euthanasia must demonstrate proficiency in the use of the technique, as well as in the humane restraint of the bird to be euthanased.

To minimise distress, veterinarians should strive to euthanase a bird within its physical and behavioural comfort zones and, where possible, prepare a calming environment. With regard to welfare impacts, the effects of species, age/life stage and particularly the health status of the bird must always be considered.

3. Recommended methods for euthanasing birds

Owners should be permitted to be present during euthanasia if they so wish. They should be fully informed about the process they are about to observe and their bird’s likely behaviour. When euthanasia is conducted with an owner present, pre-euthanasia sedation or anaesthesia should be provided whenever practicable, either before or after the owner has had the opportunity to spend some final moments with their pet.

3.1 Intravenous injection of an overdose of barbiturate

This is the preferred method for euthanasia of birds. Barbiturates administered intravenously (medial metatarsal, brachial or right jugular vein) may be given alone as the sole agent of euthanasia or as the second step after sedation or general anaesthesia. It is strongly encouraged to heavily sedate or anaesthetise to provide anxiolysis, analgesia and somnolence to reduce animal distress, allow easier and safer intravenous access and reduce apnoeic gasping that could be distressing to observers. This is especially important in wild birds which are highly distressed when handled by humans. The experience of the handler must also be taken in to account and if inexperienced at safely handling birds, then sedation/anaesthesia of the patient is vital prior to attempting the intravenous injection. See section S5.2 of the AVMA guidelines.

3.2 Intracoelomic, intracardiac or intraosseous administration of barbiturate

These methods are only acceptable in fully anaesthetised patients. These routes should NEVER be used in a conscious bird, or when sedation alone is used.

These methods are acceptable when intravenous access would cause distress, be dangerous or impractical (eg. due to small patient size such as birds smaller than 400g).

Intraosseous and intracardiac routes are painful and stressful in conscious patients, while injection of pentobarbital into the abdomen (intracoelomic) can easily result in distribution through the air sacs and lungs and result in a welfare-compromised death by drowning.

Anaesthesia methods include induction with halothane, isoflurane or sevoflurane administered via face mask or in an induction chamber. Intramuscular induction methods are also suitable and include the use of agents such as tiletamine/zolazepam (4-25mg/kg)*, medetomidine/ketamine, (M) 50-100ug/kg* + (K) 3-10mg/kg*, or midazolam/butorphanol/ketamine, (Mi) 0.2-1mg/kg* + (B) 2-4mg/kg* + (K) 3-10mg/kg*, administered intramuscularly into the pectorals.

3.3 Injectable anaesthetic overdose

Injectable anaesthetic overdose e.g. combination of ketamine and xylazine given intravenously or intramuscularly, (K) 10-50mg/kg* + (X) 1-10mg/kg*, or propofol (10-20mg/kg*) given intravenously is acceptable for euthanasia when animal size, restraint requirements, or other circumstances indicate these drugs are the best option for euthanasia. Assurance of death is paramount and may require a second step, such as a barbiturate, or additional doses of the anaesthetic

* General rule of thumb is to use higher doses for smaller patients.

3.4 Inhalant anaesthetic overdose (eg. halothane, isoflurane and sevoflurane)

Expose the animal to a high gas concentration using an anaesthetic vaporizer or soaked gauze in a closed container. If this latter method is used, ensure that the animal is exposed to vapor without direct contact of the inhalant liquid. Vapors are inhaled until respiration ceases and death ensues. Vapour exposure should be maintained for at least three minutes after apparent clinical death.

3.5 Physical methods

Personnel using physical methods of euthanasia must be appropriately trained:

1. Cervical dislocation

i. Acceptable for poultry and other birds less than 3kg.
ii. When feasible, a secondary method such as decapitation or exsanguination should be employed to ensure death.
iii. Note that it can be difficult to learn a cervical dislocation technique that is quick and effective. It is advised to practice on dead birds prior to attempting on a live bird.

2. Decapitation  

i. Perform with dedicated and clean equipment that will ensure that the head is separated from the body rapidly and completely.
ii. Should only be performed on small birds (<200g)

4. Unacceptable methods for euthanasia

4.1 Intracardiac, intraceolomic, subcutaneous, intramuscular, intrapulmonary and intrathecal routes of administration of euthanasia solutions, without prior anaesthesia

These methods are unacceptable for the administration of injectable euthanasia agents because of the limited information available regarding their effectiveness and the high probability of pain associated with injection in conscious animals.

Intracardiac administration in conscious patients should NEVER be performed as this results in distribution through the air sacs and lungs and death by drowning.

4.2 Administration of household chemicals, disinfectants, cleaning agents, and pesticides
These are not acceptable for administration as euthanasia agents.

4.3 Hypothermia, drowning, asphyxia, thoracic compression
These are not acceptable methods of euthanasia.

5. References

Field manual of wildlife diseases : general field procedures and diseases of birds / Biological Resources Division. Information and technology report ; 1999–001.

Finlayson D, Morgan K. (2014). Humane euthanasia methods for pet birds and wildlife. Vetscript, 27(8), 22-24.

Guanzini, L., Breyer, K., Pavek, T. (2016). Avian Euthanasia. Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee ACUP308.06. Cornell University

Members of the Panel of Euthanasia. (2013). AVMA guidelines for the euthanasia of animals: 2013 edition. American Veterinary Medical Association. Schaumburg: American Veterinary Medical Association.