Captive Bolt: Comments From The Industry

One item in the debate on equine slaughter is the use of captive bolt for euthanasia. This is the same method used on other livestock killed during slaughter or during a disease outbreak (such as foot and mouth disease on farms in England).

The Horse sent out a small survey to veterinarians and researchers around the world on the question: Is captive bolt a humane euthanasia for horses? Most said while no form of euthanasia is without problems (including chemical euthanasia solutions), penetrating captive bolt is considered humane when done properly.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, the umbrella organization of veterinarians in this country, published a "Report of the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia" in March 2001. That report stated, "For pain to be experienced, the cerebral cortex and subcortical structures must be functional. If the cerebral cortex is nonfunction because of hypoxia, depression by drugs, electric shock, or concussion, pain is not experienced." They went on to say, "Painless death can be achieved by properly stunning the animal, followed immediately by exsanguination (bleeding out)." They also stated, "Exaggerated muscular activity can follow loss of consciousness and, although this may disturb some observers, the animal is not experiencing pain or distress."

From The Horse survey, one researcher noted, "In the course of conducting multiple terminal equine research studies, I have euthanatized over 300 horses using a captive bolt. Most of the time, these horses were sedated beforehand, but in some cases this just wasn't possible. I have never had an inexplicable bad experience. I have had about 1% misfires, but there was no damage to the animal, not even a skin perforation. I have had one or two horses in which I misplaced the shot and had to repeat it (human error). But, in over 98% of all cases, the horse drops to the ground immediately, insensate, and most of them don't do any of the other violent behaviors you can see with barbiturates. They demonstrate an immediate lack of corneal reflex (you can stick a finger in their eye, and they don't blink reflexively), and absence of a corneal reflex is one of the tightest requirements for determining clinical death. I have used barbiturates in practice and have participated in clinical trials to evaluate euthanasia agents, and have not found any to be as good as, let alone superior to, a captive bolt. Finally, I have been present on multiple occasions in equine slaughter plants, and I consider their stunning equipment and technique to be accurate, effective, and humane."

The British Equine Veterinary Association notes: "Horses can be destroyed via either shooting or lethal injection. Both methods are instantaneous and painless."

From a U.S. veterinarian: "Chemical euthanasia is easier on the owner, not necessarily the horse. I am not saying there is anything wrong with chemical euthanasia, but statements that a captive bolt to put a horse down is inhumane are simply wrong."

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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