Written by Dr. Annie Forslund
Edits by Dr. Kathleen Cooney
Potbellied pigs are darling creatures loved by families around the world. They have full personalities to match their equally robust shape. Many veterinary professionals have steered clear of euthanasia procedures due to their size and often sensitive temperaments, however with the right combination of gentleness and skill, companion pig euthanasia is very straightforward. It can be difficult for owners to find a veterinarian who is willing to euthanize pigs, which is why I decided to teach myself how to do them. I quickly found they were not that difficult, provided certain guidelines were followed.
Pigs are a bit peculiar when compared to more traditional pets like dogs and cats, and they are very vocal. It’s common for them to squeal and grunt, especially with new people or when asked to do unfamiliar things. Their owners are used to this, having heard it throughout the pig’s life. With approximately half the pigs I’ve helped, they’ve remained quiet, however you need to be prepared. In an effort to keep them comfortable, we can practice some good Fear Free standards such as greeting them from a distance and/or waiting for them to initiate contact if possible. It’s good to slow down around pigs and take your time. Let the family tell you what the pig likes so you can build rapport on safe terms. If they themselves aren’t sure, I say things like “I think it is probably best that I maintain my distance just so as not to make things more stressful for him”. You can use your judgement and approach if you see them as inquisitive and friendly. The more sickly and obtunded they are, the more you will be initiating the connection.
The most important thing when working with pigs is to make sure they are safely restrained and anesthetized. Following CAETA’s 14 Essential Components, pigs are ideally sleeping before euthanasia with a barbiturate. The owner should be willing and able to help handle the pig so you can administer the pre-euthanasia anesthetic. This is best discussed well in advance so the owner understands the expectations. If necessary, mobile veterinarians may need to bring an assistant who is comfortable working with pigs. The more active they are, the more useful restraint devices like large pieces of wood and stretchers are. The idea is to usher them into a small space where you can safely reach down to administer an intramuscular injection in the back of the thigh. They may ‘talk’ to you, but they generally don’t kick. There are other muscular areas for injection such as the poll, however the thigh works best in my experience. It’s best to avoid the back muscles altogether.
The pre-euthanasia anesthetic is best given using a 20 gauge, 2-inch reinforced stainless steel needle to penetrate through fat into muscle. Remember that pig skin is rather tough and thick too. A reliable anesthetic combination recommended by the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy (CAETA) is as follows:
tiletamine/zolazepam 0.2ml per 4.5kg(10 lbs.)
xylazine (100mg/ml) 0.2ml per 4.5kg(10 lbs.)
acepromazine 0.1ml per 4.5kg(10 lbs.)
These drugs can be combined into one syringe (ideally with luer lock) and administered. If you inject too shallow, you might inject in fat which can delay sleep significantly. If you suspect this has happened, it is ok to give another full dose deeper. Typical time to full sleep with one properly placed anesthetic injection is around 10 minutes.
Once you are certain the pig is unconscious, the euthanasia solution is administered into the heart. This is referred to as an intracardiac injection and is very common for pigs. If you prefer a vein, some report success with the marginal ear vein, although I personally have not found this to the case. The heart is more reliable. Using a standard 18 gauge needle, draw the pentobarbital euthanasia solution (dose is 1ml per 4.5kg using a 390mg/ml solution) into a 35 or 60cc syringe. Remove the standard needle from the syringe, attach a 6” extension set and a 4 inch, 18 gauge reinforced stainless steel needle. This length will make it much easier to penetrate deeply into the chest cavity and into the heart (this is a very efficient and widely accepted technique). From this point on, the intracardiac injection is exactly the same as with dogs and cats.
Helping pigs in need is a genuine kindness and something many vets find great fulfillment in. Provided the above guidelines are followed, pig euthanasia can be safely achieved in the hospital or home/farm setting. Take your time, be prepared, rely on the owners for assistance, and post-euthanasia have a plan in place for proper aftercare.
Dr. Annie Forslund is founder of Home Pet Euthanasia of Southern California.