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Improving end-of-life decision making and timely euthanasia of dairy cattle and calves

Fund

N

Grant

£8,356

Research Period

2020

Area of study

Cattle

Description

Investigator(s): Joseph Neary

The goal of this project was to improve end-of-life decision making and more timely euthanasia in dairy cattle and youngstock by characterizing the issues faced by farmers and veterinarians when making end-of-life decisions.

This project was important because the timely euthanasia of cattle and calves on dairy farms is an area in need of significant improvement as highlighted by the recent AWF-funded Delphi report. Industry stakeholders, such as Red Tractor farm assurance and the British Cattle Veterinary Association, provide on-farm euthanasia decision making guidance, but the guidance falls short of providing clear definitions of when cattle should be euthanised. Unless “the animal is in such distress that immediate euthanasia is required”, the best course of action is not clear. The welfare of the animal should be at the forefront of decision-making, but as the Farm Animal Welfare Council has identified, there are numerous factors that likely influence on-farm euthanasia decisions.

Dairy veterinarians and dairy farmers were invited to participate in separate online surveys. Farmers were contacted about the survey through the Tesco Sustainable Dairy group farmer engagement scheme (800 farms), social media channels such as Twitter (AHDB and APHA), and the British Dairying electronic bulletin (6,000 subscribers; of those, on average 4,500 open the bulletin each week). The British Cattle Veterinary Association and some of the major corporate farm animal practices agreed to distribute the survey to their veterinary membership. Each questionnaire was designed to take less than 15 minutes to complete and included questions encompassing the provision of farm standard-operating procedures, farm staff training, veterinary intervention, culling decisions, youngstock euthanasia protocols and procedures, and timeliness of decisions. There was opportunity for respondents to elaborate on their answers.

The results of these surveys highlight the major challenges of providing timely euthanasia of dairy cattle and calves. These include a failure to record or retrieve the relevant animal health data, lack of euthanasia training among farm staff, discordance among veterinarians regarding the appropriate time to euthanize for certain diseases, and a large proportion of animals that, ideally, should have been euthanized earlier to prevent unnecessary suffering.

The next steps are to disseminate this information through publications among farmer and veterinary press outlets. Long-term, and with multi-stakeholder participation, there are plans to build a conceptual framework on which end-of-life decisions can be made.

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