Madison Area Herpetological Society

Reptile and Amphibian Euthanasia: Knowing How and When to Say Goodbye

Reptile and Amphibian Euthanasia: Knowing How and When to Say Goodbye

One of the more difficult, and oftentimes controversial subjects when it comes to keeping our pets, or captive animals in general, is the subject of euthanasia. Euthanasia, which is also known by other terms such as “putting down”, “putting to sleep”, or “culling”, means largely just that. More specifically, it is the act of humanely killing an animal which may be severely or irreversibly ill and/or injured beyond the point of recovery, or sometimes, for other reasons as well. Animals which may be candidates for euthanasia, or the reasons for considering this option, can include, but are not limited to those animals which have sustained substantial or irreversible injuries, illness, or severe birth, or congenital defects. While in a perfect world, euthanasia would never be necessary or required, and unnecessary suffering of all animals would not exist or would always easily be prevented, the unfortunate reality is that the development of humane methods for doing so, with the animal’s best welfare in mind , are, and will always continue to be needed. As with many other aspects of animal care and husbandry which have become much more well-developed over the decades as our knowledges and experiences with these animals continue to grow and change, so must the acceptable and approved methods of euthanasia.

Reptiles and amphibians are incredibly resilient animals in the wild, and at least to a large extent in captivity as well, and can sustain, survive, and ultimately recover from illnesses and injuries of surprising extent to many with few to no other adverse long term effects. So how do we know or can tell when the time may come for the decision to be made to humanely euthanize an animal under human care in captivity? One of these main considerations to examine when making such decisions would of course be the animal’s continued quality of life given its impediment. In other words, one should ask and examine or observe whether the animal can continue to survive and/or thrive on its own in captivity without significant additional human care and intervention beyond ordinary husbandry. Can the animal continue its regular ability of movement around the enclosure and be able to effectively thermoregulate or select where it wants to be on its own? Can the animal feed on its own and be able to pass its wastes? Can the animal shed properly, or perform its other routine and usual functions without significant or apparent stress, pain, or discomfort? These are all factors to consider when examining an animal’s quality of life that must be weighed upon as well to determine whether or not euthanasia may ultimately be the best option for the animal. Sometimes, other factors can also go into these difficult decisions as well, including continued costs or expenses of continued care and/or veterinary care, the decision to contain and prevent the spread of difficult to control diseases, pathogens, or outbreaks among otherwise healthy and normal animals in captivity, as use as humanely pre-killed food items for certain animals which may prefer or require them, or due to overpopulation and market issues for the given animal or species.

Ultimately, the decision for euthanasia is a difficult one that many certainly do not enjoy discussing or contemplating, and in any case, should be considered on a case by case, or individualized basis, and always with the animal’s best welfare and interest in accordance to any and all recognized and recommended professional standards in mind. Unlike mammals and many other animals, reptiles and amphibians present unique additional veterinary and husbandry related challenges and considerations, and have differing physiologies which can often make some forms of euthanasia more suitable, or less suitable for these specific groups of animals. Many of these current, and traditionally commonly used methods of euthanasia for herptiles are mentioned below, along with the positives and negatives of each, if any of either. It should also be mentioned that not all of these methods of euthanasia should be performed at home or by everyone without the professional veterinary, or other industry related experience in doing so, as many of these methods can carry a high degree of error if performed improperly or without the correct skill and toolsets.

Oftentimes, for some of these methods, a combination of the proper sedatives and/or other methods prior to using them are most recommended or required to ensure the animal’s welfare should those methods be used.  In addition, several other factors and variables must also be considered for the means of euthanasia provided, including but not limited to the animal’s size, age, restraint and other handling equipment available, tolerance or intolerance for any given agents, level of experience, and whether any other safety concerns exist for the animals and/or individuals involved (i.e. such as with venomous animals, or large animals that can deliver strong and powerful, or damaging bites, etc.). Therefore, for the majority of pet owners and other individuals who may have an animal which may be a candidate for euthanasia, consultation with one’s local veterinary professional that sees reptiles and other exotic animals for euthanasia options and services will be the most recommended option overall.

The Most Common Methods of Euthanasia for Reptiles and Amphibians

Natural Death: In some cases, an animal may pass away naturally or on its own shortly thereafter due to the severity and/or extent of its injuries, illness, or other impediments before further action or intervention can be taken. This should not, however, be construed to mean that an animal should otherwise be permitted to suffer a prolonged death or poor quality of life until it dies naturally. In these circumstances, no further euthanasia alternatives need to be taken as long as the animal can be verified as having passed away as no longer breathing, having a heart-beat, or by more precise veterinary methods.

Injections and Sedatives: Injections and sedatives, as their names imply, entail introducing barbiturates and other euthanasia solutions through injection into an animal’s vein, either intravenously, or by intracoelomic means. Most of these solutions contain strong anesthetic agents that are essentially given in the form of an overdose in order to largely and completely anesthetize the brain, while other components essentially stop the animal’s heart and other internal bodily systems. In most cases and situations, the use of the appropriate injections and sedatives is the most humane and preferred and recommended means of euthanasia that should be recommended for the purposes of this article. Animals that are euthanatized through this means typically pass within minutes or even seconds depending on the strength of the agents and mode of injection. However, most, if not all agents used in euthanasia solutions are controlled agents, and therefore must be administered by licensed and experienced veterinarians rather than as in-home solutions, and in the case of many reptiles and amphibians, locating and accessing suitable veins for the purposes of injection can sometimes present more challenges than many other traditional species such as dogs, cats, and other animals oftentimes due to the presence of these animals’ natural defense mechanisms such as thickened skin, scales and scutes, or which may generally be obscured or difficult to access areas of injection. Injectable agents should also not be used as a means of euthanasia for animals intended as food or feeders for other animals as well.

Freezing: Freezing as a means of euthanasia has been another commonly used method traditionally used by many hobbyists and enthusiasts, and this entails simply placing the animal that is to be euthanized inside of a freezer or cooler to be allowed to pass away. The concept behind this method is the belief that because reptiles and amphibians are “cold-blooded”, cooling them reduces their metabolism to the point where it simply stops functioning, which is certainly not true. While this method has traditionally been believed to be a quick, relatively effortless, and humane means, and while some reptiles and amphibians can enter a state of torpor or be able to withstand these conditions in the environments they survive in naturally, most others do not have this ability, and most of the bodies of research and evidence available now suggest that the formation of ice crystals inside of the animal’s blood cells, thereby causing them to rupture, is a rather inhumane and painful means of euthanasia when the animal is still conscious and alive. While freezing may still be an acceptable means of euthanizing an animal in some cases when it is used in combination with other euthanasia methods and the proper sedatives to render the animal unconscious beforehand, or when the animal is too small or delicate for other more preferred methods to be used, it is no longer recommended to as a sole, or primary means of euthanasia in most other cases.

Decapitation: Decapitation is just that: severing or removing the head and neck region of the animal to be euthanized. Positives of this method are that it can be a quick, relatively effortless, and no special tools, equipment, or sedatives or drugs are required. Similarly, the act of pithing, which is piercing or severing the spinal cord or column to be euthanized or immobilized by use of, and insertion of a probe. However, most bodies of recent evidence now show that decapitation as a sole method of euthanizing an animal is largely inhumane and ineffective in instantly killing an animal, as nerve endings, the brain, and other sensory organs above the point of decapitation can remain active and conscious for several minutes to even hours after death, and the margin of error with decapitation can be moderate to high. This method may still be acceptable when it is used in combination with other sedatives and methods, but is no longer a currently recommended method when used on its own.

Stunning: Stunning is another very common and widely used method of euthanizing reptiles and amphibians among hobbyists, enthusiasts, and others, as well as for feeder rodents and other animals, and involves placing a quick and well-directed blow to the animal’s head on the middle, or just in between or posterior to the eyes. In concept, and unlike decapitation, stunning is a quick and efficient means of euthanasia which instantaneously destroys and severs the animal’s brain and nerve endings, and can also be an acceptable means of euthanizing an animal in emergency situations in which no other methods may be available. Similarly, larger animals can sometimes be dispatched with a well-directed gunshot or other stun device to the brain of appropriate caliber as well. However, this method carries a moderate to high margin of error, and must be performed with experience, and as accurately as animals can become further injured from misdirected or unsuccessful stunning attempts. Therefore, for most people and situations without the experience and who may be considering euthanasia for their animal, and for the purposes of this article, stunning is not a recommended method of euthanasia.

Gassing and Other Inhaled Methods: A last, commonly used method of euthanasia that has been widely and traditionally used for many species, including feeder animals intended as use as food for other animals, entail the inhalation of various gassing agents, including but not limited to chloroform, methoxyflurane, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide, or CO2. These methods also entail placing the animal to be euthanized inside of a professional or home constructed enclosed chamber in which gasses can be safely introduced and implemented. While these methods may be acceptable means for euthanizing many species of mammals and other animals, and in concept, have been widely believed to be humane, relatively effortless, and quick means of euthanasia, reptiles and amphibians present several additional unique challenges when it comes to considering gassing as a means of euthanasia. Unlike most mammals, the physiology and respiratory mechanisms used by most reptiles and amphibians can often differ in that many of these animals have much slower metabolisms, and can hold their breaths for long periods of time, as well as being able to reduce or even divert blood flow away from non-vital organs and organ systems, and as such, often require much longer exposure times to the agents for this means to be effective for these specific groups of animals. As such, these animals actually experience a more prolonged and inhumane death under these conditions than traditionally believed. Adjunctive methods used in combination with other sedatives and agents can still be acceptable means for euthanasia, but generally, Carbon dioxide and other inhaled anesthetics have become less of a recommended method of euthanasia for reptiles and amphibians than they have in the past.

What to Do With an Animal After Euthanasia

Once the euthanasia operation has been successfully performed, and one’s final goodbyes have been made, what does, or should one do with the animal afterwards? This can depend on several factors, including simply one’s preferences, as well as finances, and other means and resources one may have available. Post-euthanasia and disposal options can always be discussed further with one’s local reptile and other exotic animal veterinarian, or other veterinary professional. However, some of the options that are most commonly available after the fact may include cremation services, at home or professional burial, or, if one wishes and is aware of any local option available, donation of the animal to further educational, medical, scientific, and/or research purposes. Some may also consider less conventional options for personal or educational purposes such as self-preservation of the animal, cleaning and articulation of the animal and its skeleton and other remains. No matter the means of final disposal of an animal, realize that the decision to humanely euthanize an animal is far from a unique one, and are difficult decisions most, if not everyone who maintains these animals in captivity for any lengthy period of have had to make as well.