Drugs used for Animal Welfare

In addition to the vaccinations that we administer, there are a number of drugs that we should have in our toolbox.  When I started in the animal welfare business, no training was provided in the use of drugs; but, I was fortunate that my first place of employment was in Pullman Washington,  I developed a good working relationship with the Washington State’s Veterinary College and I was trained by the head  anesthesiologist.   Now, training is required for those who use these drugs.

Sodium Pentobarbital is the drug that we least like to use, but it is the only preferred method to administer euthanasia. A number of years ago the supply of drug diminished and for several months the entire country had become no-kill. pharmaceuticals can be a fickle thing and that one incident taught us all to maintain, at least, a six month supply.

Years ago, I got into the habit of pre-tranquilizing my animals for euthanasia.  I wanted the procedure to go as smoothing for the animal, as well as myself.  In those days, my cohorts in the profession called me “drug happy.”  Now, it has become common practice to anesthetize an animal prior to euthanasia.

The same drugs are use both in the shelter and in the field to tranquilize an animal.  Much of the training that you find online is geared towards wildlife, but if you use the drugs that offer the a wide margin of safety, the same drugs are safe on domestic animals.  The rule of thumb is that you use double the clinical dosage in the field to overcome the adrenaline that an animal has in a field setting.

Generally animal control professionals create a cocktail of two or more drugs.  Much of my history of using chemicals, I choose a 5-1 mixture of ketamine and xylazine.  I would create the solution by opening a 10 ml bottle of 100 mg/ml of ketamine and injecting 2 ml of 100 mg/ml of xylazine.  The benefit of this cocktail was that it had a wide safety margin and a long shelf life.  One of the problems with this cocktail is that if you stored loaded tranquilizer darts, you would have to make sure that the cocktail did not crystalize in the needle.

The “bible” on this subject was the Chemical Immobilization in Urban Animal Control Work, by Leon Nielsen.  The book was published by the Wisconsin Humane Society and has not been in print for many, many years.  I found a copy on Amazon.  Also the proceedings for the North American in 1982 produced the Chemical Immobilization of North American Wildlife.  It is much easier to find this book, but if you going to be in the business of chemical capture, both books should be on your shelf.

At this point I should add that a large number of animal control officers prefer to add acepromazine.  Acepromazine is a mild sedative and you might as well just add water to dilute  your cocktail.  It is great to use alone to mildly sedate an animal, but reversal is quick when adrenaline kicks in.

I used a blow dart system that used a 3 ml dart.  I could load the three darts with 1 ml, 2 ml, and 3ml for small, medium, or large dogs.  If I got a very large animal, I could load the blow gun with multiple darts.

Today, animal organizations are moving to using Telazol as their drug of choice.  The advantage of Telazol is that it comes in powder form, so that you can increase its strength by adding less water, which is a good thing when your darts are limited to 3 ml.  The problem with Telazol is that it has a very short shelf life.  I have used the drug on multiple occasions and just prefer the cocktail that I grew up with.

There is one drug that I hesitate to mention: succinylcholine.  It is a paralytic drug and provides the quickest knock down, but they have a very narrow safety margin.  Overdosing an animal administers a horrible death.  I was attending a college lecture in which a wildlife researcher was telling my class about his project of shooting deer with a tranquilizer from a helicopter for his research project.  Being the smartass that I am, I asked him what drug was he using.  He said he was using succinylcholine.  I then asked him what his survival rate was.  He said that he had a fifty percent survival rate.  I then asked him how he felt about being involved in bastard research.  My entire class agreed with me that any research that kills half of its research subjects it not legitimate.

I had only one incident in my career in which I considered using succinylcholine; I got a call that a group of dogs were harassing a deer and that the deer’s hind legs were torn up badly.  Since I was not authorized to use a firearm, I needed a drug that would quickly knock the deer down, so that I could immediately euthanize it.

When considering using chemicals to capture an animal in the field, you need to consider the possibility of loosing a dart.  Each time I shot an animal with a tranquilizer dart, I was more concerned as to where the dart went than the animal.  Trust me, missing darts are hard to find and will give you many sleepless nights.  I was fortunate that I recovered every lost dart.  I had a good team working with me.  If I could not find the dart, I would bring in a pair of professional dart finders: my young son and daughter.  Kids are well suited for finding things on the ground, that is why you never, never, ever want to lose one of your darts.

Tranquilizers are very helpful when you need to handle an aggressive dog for examination or euthanasia.  In the kennel area, you can either use a blowgun or jab-stick.  A jab-stick is just a syringe on the end of a long pole.  You have to use care in dealing with a moving animal so that you don’t inadvertently bend the needle when sticking an animal.  You need to apply enough force to plunge the solution in the syringe into the animal.

Dealing with aggressive animals is one of the elements that makes an animal welfare officer’s job dangerous.  Chemical techniques can greatly lessen that danger.  It also lessens damage to the animal when being captured.