Animal Euthanasia and Lethal Injection


The predominant method of animal euthanasia is an anesthetic-only procedure involving the injection of a single barbiturate. When injected with the barbiturate, usually sodium pentobarbital, an animal quickly moves into a state of unconsciousness and then death. The process usually lasts just a couple of minutes. In addition to the American Veterinary Medical Association, every major American animal rights organization either strongly recommends or requires this procedure. Many animal welfare groups specifically decry the use, in animal euthanasia, of paralyzing agents such as those used in lethal injection executions. For example, the Humane Society of the United States deems “inhumane” the use of “any combination of sodium pentobarbital with a neuromuscular blocking agent.”


The amicus brief filed by a group of prominent veterinarians in Baze v. Rees emphasizes that the lethal injection formula used by the states and federal government does not meet the minimum standards of care required by veterinarians for animal euthanasia. State and federal lethal injection protocols call for the intravenous administration of three drugs, in the following order: sodium thiopental (a short-acting anesthetic), pancuronium bromide (a neuromuscular blocking agent that paralyzes the individual) and potassium chloride (which causes death by inducing cardiac arrest). Challenges to the three-drug formula used in lethal injections allege that the second drug paralyzes the inmate, rendering him unable to cry out or indicate in some way if the first drug, the anesthetic, has not been administered properly.


A recent, exhaustive study of animal euthanasia statutes and regulations concludes that the vast majority (97.6%) of lethal injection executions in this country have taken place in states that have banned, for use in animal euthanasia, the same drugs that are used in those states during executions. All but eight states either explicitly prohibit paralyzing drugs in animal euthanasia or mandate an anesthetic-only procedure that does not involve a paralytic. The examination of the legislative history of animal euthanasia laws reveals that the same concerns animated animal euthanasia laws, many which were enacted decades ago.


Some of the states that have the most explicit ban on paralyzing drugs in animal euthanasia are among the most active when it comes to the death penalty. Florida’s law, for instance, has mandated since 1984 that paralyzing drugs “may not be used on a dog or cat for any purpose.” Yet Florida’s newly-minted lethal injection protocol calls explicitly for the inmate to be paralyzed before the lethal potassium chloride is administered. States continue to use a lethal injection procedure that does not conform to veterinary standards, despite an understanding of the dangers of the paralyzing drug, and the ready availability of a simple alternative long used by veterinarians.


Additional Information on Animal Euthanasia and Lethal Injection


Ty Alper, Anesthetizing the Public Conscience: Lethal Injection and Animal Euthanasia, 35 Fordham Urb. L. J. 817 (2008).


State Euthanasia Laws and Regulations


Amicus Brief of Drs. Kevin Concannon, Dennis Geiser, et al. Baze v. Rees


Amicus Brief of Drs. Kevin Concannon, Dennis Geiser, et al. Hill v. McDonough


Statements of Veterinarian and Animal Welfare Organizations Regarding Euthanasia


"Animal Vets Can't Use Execution Drug", Associated Press, April 4, 2008


Additional Resources for Litigators


Updated: September 3, 2009





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