August 2017
From the State Vet's Office

The Least Favorite Part of My Job

I suppose different people become veterinarians for a variety of reasons. I suppose the fact I liked working with animals and I loved people played a big role in my decision to pursue veterinary medicine. I figured that, if I could make people’s animals feel better, it would be a plus for the animals and the owners. By treating pets or farm animals or providing them with preventive care, I was doing my part in making the world I lived in a little bit better. I don’t see animals anymore on a day-to-day basis, but the responsibilities of my job are to look after the collective health of the livestock herds and poultry flocks in the state of Alabama.

When I was in private practice, the thing I never got used to and never liked to do was euthanize animals. For those of you who are not familiar with what euthanasia means, it simply means "good death." In veterinary practice, I often had to euthanize the family pet because it had become too debilitated to live any type of quality life. Often these animals had some terminal disease resulting in constant pain and they struggled to stay alive long enough to meet their impending, inevitable demise. When I injected the solution into the animal’s vein to cause it to go to sleep permanently, I knew I was doing the animal and, ultimately, the owners a favor. I never liked doing it and never got used to it but knew it was a necessary part of my job.

Fast forward a little over 20 years. I seldom put my hands on animals in my job as State Veterinarian. I have, however, been involved in having to recommend some animals be euthanized to stop the potential spread of some devastating disease. These decisions are made, usually with the input and partnership of the owners or the poultry companies, federal animal health officials and the state animal health official (me) as the case may be. While it is not the same as euthanizing the family pet that has been around to help raise the kids, there is still a considerable amount of stress that goes along with euthanizing large numbers of cattle, swine, chickens or other livestock and poultry.

Some of you reading this column have gotten a little ahead of me and are saying to yourself, "I’ll bet having to euthanize the poultry on the two Alabama farms that had tested positive for low pathogenic avian influenza back in the spring prompted Dr. Frazier to write on this subject." Well, you are correct. I remember seeing it reported on the news. The reporter ended her report by saying, "… and the chickens on the farm that tested positive were destroyed and will not make it into the food supply." It takes about three or four seconds to say that. The birds on the farm were destroyed – and life goes on. I want to discuss a few of the necessary considerations involved in that event. It definitely stretched us personnel- and resource-wise, but I feel like it was necessary and likely kept us from having a really bad situation on our hands.

The first consideration I want to address is the method we use for mass euthanasia must be one approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association and considered humane. While the euthanasia solution used to inject Ol’ Shep works great, you just cannot use that on poultry farms with 20,000 to over 100,000 birds on the premises.

The methods for mass depopulation must be as quick and painless as possible. That involves equipment and trained personnel to use the equipment. Some of our neighboring states and some poultry companies, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, own equipment that can be used for mass depopulation. In our situation, it was not only appreciated but essential that poultry companies, the state of Mississippi and USDA brought their equipment into Alabama to help us with depopulation. In the future, we will look at finding funding to possibly buy our own equipment that can be used for future mass depopulation.

The second consideration is to be able to get rid of the carcasses in a way consistent with not harming the environment or contaminating ground water supplies. I think I once wrote an article titled "Committing the Crime Was Easy. Getting Rid of the Body Is What Was Difficult." Ideally, we do not want to move the carcasses off the farm and risk spreading the disease as we haul birds down the road to a landfill. That requires some strategic planning that, fortunately, is part of each poultry farm’s disposal plan.

The State Veterinarian in South Dakota is a friend of mine. When they had a few cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza back in 2014 or 2015, he told me they were stretched to their limit pretty quickly. South Dakota is not known to be a poultry state. We are. It is almost impossible to imagine how difficult it would be here in Alabama if we had several flocks positive for avian influenza at the same time. It would make it tremendously more difficult if our neighboring states were dealing with several positive premises of their own.

Thinking about such scenarios makes it easy to want to just whistle as you go by the cemetery and hope nothing like that ever happens. But June 13, poultry company representatives, state and USDA animal health officials, and veterinary services personnel from Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi met in Hanceville at one of our branch diagnostic laboratories. The sole purpose of the meeting was to discuss and educate us about mass poultry depopulation. The meeting was the brainchild of Dr. Jim Watson, Mississippi State Veterinarian. The location was chosen because it was sort of central. Ben Mullins, our emergency programs director, coordinated the details with USDA and Watson.

I have always said that you plan for a hurricane when the sun is shining. We started planning for the next avian influenza event soon after the last was over and it was still fresh on everyone’s mind. We didn’t iron all the details out but we were able to get on the same page concerning mass depopulation of poultry. Hopefully, we will continue to hone our capabilities.

Mass depopulation is definitely the part of my job I like the least. But it is necessary sometimes to stop the spread of potentially devastating diseases. Hopefully, we can go for a long time without having to consider such unpleasant activities. But if we are faced with the need to euthanize large flocks, we will be better prepared as we go down the road.

 

Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama. You can contact him at 334-240-7253.