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Humane Rabbit Euthanasia

By: Debbie Jones

Putting the bunny down, putting it to sleep, culling... There are many names for killing a rabbit. Whatever the reason for killing, the most important factor to those of us who truly love our bunnies is that the procedure is humane, painless, and stress free. To those of you not interested in the rabbit's point of view, skip this article. There are many justifiable reasons to put a rabbit down, whether to butcher it for human consumption, to release it from misery and pain, or to use as a food for other animals, etc. Having worked for a veterinarian for a few years and experiencing methods of euthanasia firsthand at the vet's office that were far less than humane, I have always been very concerned that animals leave this world in the most humane manner we as humans can provide. Some methods may not be the "prettiest", but still are very humane from the rabbit's standpoint. The method you use, as well as handling of the rabbit prior to killing it, is very important to achieve a "humane" method. I base my recommendation on how the procedure feels to the rabbit rather than the human, backed with much research. I have to say what I have always felt was most humane is reinforced by the AVMA's(American Veterinary Medical Association) Report on Euthanasia, dated 1993.

I could not believe all the crazy, painful, cruel methods humans will use to destroy a rabbit just to avoid it looking "messy", keeping their hands off the animal, or spending a little bit of money. It basically just takes common sense, responsibility and little bit of research to make personal, informed decisions about what one deems humane for the rabbit's death. I will provide the information I have researched, as well as my opinion, which is just that, my opinion, as to what is deemed humane. You must make your own decision as to what method best suits you and your rabbits overall, and the specific method best suited to the situation in which you are killing your rabbits, as it may differ.

Euthanasia can be accomplished via several different methods. A veterinarian can inject the rabbit with a sodium pentobarbital solution, you can shoot the rabbit in the head, hit the rabbit on the head with a blunt object (e.g., a hammer), you can break the rabbit's neck, or you can chop off its head. These methods, while they sound distasteful, are nevertheless a reality for rabbit breeders, and I would suggest you do your homework and make an informed decision if you care about your rabbit's feelings and how it leaves this world. Personally, we provide a nice sized cardboard box with tall sides and line it with hay or straw. We live out in the country, so shooting a gun is not a problem. My husband shoots them from above and behind, directly on top of the crown, or between the ears. Don't try to shoot them between the eyes, as it is too easy to miss if they move and you can cause pain and suffering. A gunshot to the head is not pretty, but causes immediate brain death, and thus is painless. Moreover, we provide a stress-free environment prior to death.

If you have a veterinarian euthanise your rabbit, you must request a sodium pentobarbital solution, not some of the cheaper solutions. Sleepaway is a common trade name for a good product that works well. When the vet injects the rabbit, you want it injected not into the chest area (thoracically), but in the abdominal area so it will be absorbed quickly via the liver, and no needles will pierce the lungs. Thus, this would be the most painless route to deliver the solution. The death will not be instantaneous, but they will "go to sleep".

If you choose to shoot the rabbit, you will need to know how to use a gun safely, or know someone you can trust to use a gun safely. A pellet gun or air rifle is not an adequate "gun" for killing a rabbit, especially an adult rabbit. A 0.22 caliber will be a big enough caliber to use. For small bunnies, a 0.22 short will do a humane job, for the larger rabbits a 0.22 long rifle would be recommended. This is the method our family has chosen to use. I make sure the handling of the rabbit prior to being shot is very stress free, which is very important to me and I think to the rabbit. We do not shoot a rabbit around any other rabbit; the gunshot would scare the other rabbits. Additional rabbits that are to be put down don't need to be scared before they are killed, so do one at a time please. This takes more time, but go for quality, not quantity. We provide a nice sized cardboard box with tall sides and put hay or straw in the box. We live out in the country, so shooting a gun is not a problem. My husband shoots them from above and behind, directly on top of the crown, or between the ears. Don't try to shoot them between the eyes as it is too easy for them to move and cause you to miss--causing pain and suffering. A gunshot to the head is not pretty, but causes immediate brain death, making it painless. Moreover, we provide a stress free environment prior to death.

You can hit the rabbit on the head with a blunt/hard object. Most use a hammer, or a hard oak hammer handle. Do not hold the rabbit up by the back legs to do this, because handling a rabbit in this manner causes unnecessary stress to the rabbit. There is no reason to do this hold to administer a blow to the head, because you can set the rabbit on a table and hit it on the head. This is not a pretty sight either, but a well placed hard blow to the head will render the animal unconscious/dead for butchering, and, if you do a good job, it will kill the rabbit instantly. You must be willing to hit it hard enough so it does not wake up, as this would be cruel and inhumane.

Another option is breaking the rabbit's neck (cervical dislocation) or chopping off its head with a hatchet. These methods would be the last two I would recommend. Cervical dislocation is considered an acceptable method of euthanasia for rabbits, however, the method for handling them to deliver the deed is stressful in my opinion. It is hard to dislocate a rabbit's neck without holding it by the back legs, and research has shown there is brain wave function for approximately 15 seconds after the neck is dislocated or the head is chopped off. What kind of brain activity is anyone's guess. No rabbit/human has survived the ordeal to tell of the feelings... This is common practice for butchering rabbits. If you are comfortable with the 15 seconds, then it may be an acceptable method for you to use. It is certainly far better than many other methods which I will recommend against.

I would suggest you look at the methods you are employing and consider: "If you put your dog down in this method, would you be arrested for cruelty to animals?" This would be a good standard, in my opinion.

Some of the killing methods I have been enlightened about over the last two years amazed me. How someone could use these methods is beyond me, and who would invent these methods is something I wonder about also. There are, moreover, many methods commonly used because they "look" nice and don't require "personal" involvement of the rabbit breeder. They are used with more thought given to the human than the humane. Just a little common sense would convince most thinking folks that these methods would not be painless, or humane. Consider what methods are/have been deemed humane for human execution, e.g.: injection, a shooting squad, hanging, the electric chair, and the gas chamber. The last two have long been criticized as inhumane, so why would we use it on innocent rabbits if it is painful?

Many methods are most definitely inhumane. Electrocution, drowning, freezing, injection of fluids, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ether, snake food, or setting them free all end very unpleasantly, painfully, and stressfully. It is best to use one of the above methods when you need to euthanise an animal.

I will not go into all of the odd chemicals, or odd methods that have been researched. Thousands of animals have been sacrificed in research facilities to compile data for humane euthanasia. Just trust that the data compiled is enough to come to logical conclusions.

Freezing is not considered humane unless the animal is unconscious first. Extremities hurt really badly when they get really cold, right? So let's not put those baby bunnies in a ziploc baggy in the freezer, out of sight, out of mind. Which happens first, suffocation or freezing? Feet freeze first right?

Carbon monoxide (via car exhaust) is a dangerous method for humans. This can kill YOU if you are not careful. To get the correct mixture at the right temperature, carbon monoxide canisters would have to be used. This is very dangerous to whomever is using it to kill rabbits. If you use car exhaust, you must use a hose to deliver the gas, as it is hot when it comes out of the vehicle, and thus could burn the rabbit. This IS NOT a safe method, and its humaneness is questionable as seizures do occur.

I won't comment further on setting your rabbits free to become predator food. Logical persons already know this is irresponsible as well as cruel. Don't do it. Death by predator is NOT humane, and domestic rabbits do not consider themselves part of nature as far as I know...

Electrocution, although commonly used on fox farms, is not recommended because they do not lose consciousness for 10-30 seconds or more after cardiac fibrillation. This doesn't sound painless, does it? To do this humanely, the animal first must be rendered unconscious. Doing so would make just about any method acceptable, given that the animal has already been knocked out. Drowning as a means of euthanasia is inhumane, as reported in the AVMA report.

Then there are those who inject their rabbits with household or kennel products, such as isopropyl alcohol into the chest cavity. Anyone ever get it into a wound? Burns bad, huh? Then why would it be recommended for injection into the chest cavity? Yes, this doubtlessly would kill a rabbit, but who knows the physiological effects that accompany this method! It wasn't addressed in the AVMA, but a vet did recommend it to a client with rabbits, suggesting that they not tell anyone. If this was such a humane, cheap, painless method, by all means, let's share the information! Many other fluids have been injected into an animal's body cavity to kill it. Needless to say, suffering and pain accompany these methods.

Carbon dioxide, commonly known as dry ice, or CO2, is not a recommended method of euthanasia for rabbits. There are CO2 chambers that are scientifically built to administer CO2 at a prescribed rate used routinely in laboratories. Some say even the mice and rats struggle and seem to suffer in these elaborate chambers. Raptor rehab facilities use CO2 in many instances as well. However, most do not have scientific chambers, which are not recommended for rabbits anyway. They use a 5 gallon bucket, and either use a canister of CO2, or dry ice. The way CO2 works to accomplish death is by suffocation. It is heavier than oxygen, thus it goes to the bottom of the container, pushing out the oxygen. The animal will stand on its hind legs to find oxygen. Does this sound stress free? Then when the animal can no longer reach the oxygen, it suffocates in a bucket devoid of oxygen. The theory here is the animal should go unconscious first, but I have had technicians that kill the rabbits and chickens in these buckets relay that the chickens go "crazy" and the rabbits squeal. The AVMA does not recommend CO2 as a euthanasia method for rabbits. I cannot recommend it either, and I urge those of you who supply rabbits to the raptor rehabilitators to do your homework. Deliver your bunnies dead for them, or try to educate the rehabilitator. It certainly seems sad to save one creature at the painful expense of another. Also, you must realize many rabbits are released alive for raptors to practice on prior to the raptor's release. Using dry ice for C02 is not humane, and if you discuss the killing method the raptor center you choose uses, you may find someone there that does kill the "food" humanely.

. Ether may cause respiratory arrest before unconsciousness, hence would not be considered pain or stress free. Drowning is also an inhumane method. Figure it out folks: it's a very scary, stressful way to die, and those that have survived a near drowning can enlighten you on that one. Water in lungs hurts, and brain death does not occur first. Either way, suffocation would not be pleasant in any way.

As far as using rabbits for snake food is concerned, I suggest that if you choose to feed your rabbits to a snake, you go watch first. Some humans may enjoy or accept this as "part of nature". However, domestic rabbits are not part of nature, and being crushed to death or suffocated would in no way be considered humane. If your rabbit is to be snake food, kill it first. Many snake people feed pre- killed animals to their snakes, for the safety of the snake as well as humaneness. Feeding bunnies to cats, chickens, or other "predators" does not render the animal unconscious before death, so cannot be considered humane.

There are undoubtedly methods I have failed to mention, but I have presented the most common methods used to kill rabbits. Feel free to do your own research and come to your own conclusions. Just remember to consider the animal that is going to be killed and how it will feel with the method you choose. If the animal's feelings are not a consideration, then your reading this article has been a waste of my time and yours.

Debbie Jones ~Prairie Wind Rabbitry ~Holland Lops ~Wyoming




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