Our doe had a litter of 6 bunnies and all seemed to be fine until we took them to a breeder we knew about to have them tattooed.  He told us that one of our bunnies has wolf teeth, or what he called malocclusion.  He told me there was nothing that could be done to cure our bunny and that we either would have to keep the bunny and trim its teeth every few weeks for the rest of its life, or do what he recommended was best and just put the bunny down. We didn’t want to do anything right then, but now after more time has gone by I can really see how bad our bunny’s teeth are getting.  One has curled back and is about ready to grow into the top of its mouth.  I think it is time that I do something but I can’t bring myself to just hit it in the heat with a hammer.   I called our veterinarian to see how much he would charge and he said it would cost $40.00 to put the rabbit down.  I guess I should have let the breeder do it when he offered to for free.  I thought I would look at some web sites to see if there was some way suggested to put our bunny down that would not be so violent.   One web site I looked at talk about painless euthanasia but did not explain how to go about doing it.  Can you help explain to me what painless euthanasia is?


Mary Peterson





From reading the mail I get off our web page I have discovered there is about an even number of people who write that are primarily pet owners and those that fall into the class that could be called rabbit breeders.  It is understandable that these two groups will approach the subject of euthanasia much differently.  Pet owners normally manage their sick rabbits well; they have fewer animals to care for and more time to spend with each individual animal.  It stands to reason that they would not consider putting their pet down until every other recourse had been exhausted.  The rabbit breeder on the other hand is confronted with a whole set of different considerations that the pet owner is not confronted with.

Euthanasia is never a pleasant task but is often a necessary one to alleviate suffering of a diseased or injured animal and may become necessary when a serious genetic problem is present.  Genetic problems almost always preclude any chance for breeding or showing and often the affected animal is subject to painful and prolonged suffering. Putting the animal down is much preferable to allowing a serious genetic predisposition to be passed down to future generations.  Unfortunately economics has a part to play as well.  It is just not economically feasible for a breeder to hold such compromised animals in their rabbitry simply to prolong the animal’s life.  Such acts of misguided kindness can end up being inhumane to the sick animal while taking up valuable resources that could better be put to use exploiting the full genetic potential of other animals in the rabbitry.  The first responsibility of the breeder is to always error on the side of protecting the integrity of the breed.  Those people not prepared to make the hard decisions have no business as a breeders.


Once the need has been recognized and the decision made to euthanize then it falls on the breeder to determine the best method to be used for putting the animal down.  Obviously the choice should be the one that will cause the least pain and suffering to the animal; here the operative word here is least.  There is no way I would want to persuade anyone that putting an animal down can be accomplished without the possibility of some degree of discomfort.  We often hear such words as “put to sleep” used to soften the reality of what is in store for the animal when what we really mean to do is kill.


I believe that in the name of political correctness people in polite society too often try to avoid directly confronting ideas or behaviors they find distasteful or uncomfortable and instead choose to avoid the sensitive subject by inventing new words that sound less caustic or controversial.  When done to protect the sensitivities of a child or their own sense of guilt the effort is understandable but when such avoidance tactics are used too placate less deserving sensibilities then the issue has questionable value.


Regardless of how politically correct we might be in choosing the name we apply to the act of killing, the process by simple definition still implies an act of violence used to bring about the death of a living creature.  The use of a politically correct term will never diminish the savagery of the act nor lessen the potential for suffering.  All effort should be focused on making the procedure humane by inflecting the least pain, stress and anxiety possible while rendering the animal unconscious and brain dead in the quickest and most expedient manner possible.  There often is confusion and disagreement surrounding the best choice to accomplish this goal and not infrequently some of the advice offered on the subject is equally clouded in guess work and custom.  One only needs to visit a place where animals are being slaughtered and watch a pig hoisted off the ground at the end of a rope fastened around its hind legs and hear the pitiful squealing of the animal as its throat is cut and the animal bled out to know that custom should give way to reasonable compassion.  In my own research and investigation on humane methods of euthanasia I was surprised by some of the advice I did received from professionals, even veterinarians, who I expected would be quite knowledgeable on the subject.  What I discovered was that once they got past Sodium Pentobarbital the average veterinarian had little more to offer. 


With Sodium pentobarbital being on the highly controlled substance list the average breeder has little alternative methods open to them having equivalent humanitarian value as a none violent means of euthanasia.  If Sodium Pentobarbital has one draw back it would be the painful method of delivery which in itself is stress producing. 

Though it might be easier to just drop the problem on the doorstep of the local vet the expense can soon overwhelm the limited budget the of the average rabbitry. It became clear that political correctness would need to take a back seat to the plight of the unfortunate bunny facing its last moments on earth.  As such I offer the experience of my research on the subject of home grown euthanasia.  I do want to make mention of a web site I discovered while preparing to write this article that does a wonderful job of addressing this difficult subject.  Debbie Jones of Prairie Wind Rabbitry in Wyoming.  http://www.angelfire.com/wy/deb/euth.html gives us the benefit of her family’s ten years in the rabbit business.


I have found it easier to study the subject of euthanasia by dividing the methods of euthanasia into categories related to the causation of death rather than to rank them by the degree of their humaneness.  It will be up to the individual breeder to come to their own conclusion as to that method they feel most comfortable with.  Needles to say it will be the innocent rabbit that has the most to suffer from the decision made.


I do warn you that some people may find this next portioned of my article a little too graphic for some tastes.  I apologies if someone is offended.  There is no way to make euthanasia pretty.  It is a distasteful and unpleasant reality that I believe cannot be address in any other way than with direct and brutal honesty.


Death by Physical Trauma


Bludgeoning - This method involves A sharp heavy blow to the head from a sturdy club or similar instrument.  The animal is rendered unconscious immediately with death following quickly from severe brain trauma.  Naturally the suffering of the animal is dependent on the skill of the person wielding the club.  The single blow must be heavy enough to crush the skull.  The procedure can best be carried out by placing the rabbit on a bench or work table so that the head of the animal is resting against the table top.  This can be accomplished without unduly frightening the animal.


Decapitation - Involves the quick severing of the rabbit’s head from the animals body with an axe or hatchet.  Death is presumed to be instantaneous, however, electrical brain activity has been measured for as long as 15 seconds after decapitation.  The animal must be held securely by the hind legs during the process and the axe swung at precisely the right moment to avoid a miss directed cut that fails to kill the rabbit instantly.  Extreme stress and anxiety will be suffered by the animal during the process.  A degree of skill is required in handling the axe or hatchet.


Cervical dislocation - Involves breaking the rabbits neck.  In order to be done correctly the animal must be held by the hind legs while the opposite hand holds the head and brings it back in a quick motion that breaks the neck vertebrae thus severing the spinal cord.  The rabbit will suffer a high degree of stress and anxiety while being held by the hind legs.  Death is believed to be instantaneous.


Shooting - Involves shooting the rabbit in the head.  This is best accomplished holding the gun in a position above and slightly behind the rabbit so that the bullet will pass down and between the ears and penetrating the crown of the head and passing through the brain case.  The idea is to explode the brain.  A 22 caliber long or long rifle is recommended Brain death is immediate with minimal or no suffering or anxiety produced in the rabbit.  It is recommended that to control the rabbit it be placed in a cardboard box filled with a layer of hay in the bottom.  For safety precautions the box should be placed outside on the ground so that should the bullet pass through the rabbit it will continue through the bottom of the box and penetrate harmlessly into the ground.  Gun safety should be carefully followed.  If the process is handled correctly the rabbit will be totally unaware of potential danger and death will be instantaneous. 


Death by Suffocation

Drowning - Usually reserved for very young rabbits; the animal is held under water until dead.  This from of death produces high stress and anxiety with pain as water enters the lungs. The process requires from 15 to 45 seconds to take place. The rabbit will be seen to struggle through out the process.  It has to belong among the most inhumane methods of euthanasia.

Asphyxiation - Usually involves the use of a heavier gas that displaces the oxygen in an enclosed space.  Carbon Dioxide or Carbon Monoxide is the two most common gasses of choice.  In theory the animal will lose conscious followed by a painless death by suffocation.  In reality there is much evidence of intense anxiety and struggling prior to the animal losing consciousness. 

Lethal Anesthetic  - Ether is a form of anesthetic that is recommended in high doses by a few veterinarians as a substitute for Sodium Pentobarbital as a killing agent.  Because Ether is a highly controlled substance engine starter fluid is often used as a substitute for pure Ether. In high enough levels to bring about death Ether may cause respiratory arrest before unconsciousness.  In such cases the rabbit will go through the anxiety and stress of suffocation.  Ether also poses an extreme fire danger and is extremely explosive when concentrated in an enclosed area.  This no doubt is why Ether is the main ingredient used in starter fluid.

Death From Respiratory and/or Cardiac Arrest

Electrocution - Commonly used on Fox and Mink farms, electrocution is usually very painful and can cause deep burns to body tissues.  Loss of consciousness is usually swift if the current path is through the brain.  Muscular spasms are common often resulting in cardiac and respiratory arrest if the current is high enough.  

Sodium pentobarbital - Sodium pentobarbital is often the choice of  veterinarians for euthanasia.  Sleepaway is the trade name of one of the better products.  If it were not for the stress and anxiety incurred during the preparation necessary to administer the killing solution, Sodium Pentobarbital would rate as an exceptionally humane euthanasia choice. Though death is never instantaneous the animal does go into a deep sleep that eventually leads to both cardiac and respiratory arrest but not before the animal has lost all consciousness.  Obviously this method would rate very high as a method of humane death.  However its use is highly controlled and entails the services and expense of a veterinarian.

Freezing - I  listed  this  method of   killing   under Respiratory and/or   cardiac   arrest   only  because  I had no idea where else to place it.  Though some animals hibernate, rabbits are not one of those animals.  When placed in a freezing environment the rabbit will suffer similar intense pain and anxiety that a human would expect to suffer under similar conditions.  Eventually the animal’s core body temperature will drop to a level where hypothermia will set in and body functions will slow to the point that consciousness will be lost followed by cardiac and respiratory arrest and death.  The process is slow and agonizing for the animal.   

Natural predation - There are breeders and books on raising rabbits that suggest the sale of rabbits as snake food as a viable way of dealing with rabbits culled from the show and breeding stock. In some cases snake owners prefer live animals to provide their snake the experience of the hunt and kill in the process of feeding.  Genetically compromised rabbits are sometimes put to death by such means in the belief that it will die in the way nature intended.  In nature, however, the rabbit has a fighting chance of escape to live another day.

The other form of “so called” natural predation is accomplished by setting the rabbit loose in an area where the rabbit will enter the natural food chain of wild carnivores in the area.  In nature the wild rabbit has the benefit of survival skills to allow it a fighting chance to avoid death, something the domestic bunny totally lacks.  In all cases of predation, the rabbit will die a painful and terrifying death.

What I learned of suggested methods of euthanasia included some that were unnecessarily cruel while others were downright inhumane and even others that bordered on being ghoulish.  Drowning, electrocution, throat cutting, sale as snake food, or turning the rabbit loose to die of predation are all inhumane and examples of extreme crudity.   Yet it was one of the political correct crowd that held out for Natural Predation as “nature’s way.”  I thought of suggesting that she include “eaten by lions” as her preferred form of death in her living will, but thought better of it.


In trying to select the one method of killing that involved the least unnecessary cruelty, discomfort, stress, pain and anxiety to the rabbit and the least expense to the breeder, shooting had to top the list.  I might not have chosen this method had I not been a hunter and been faced myself with making the hard decision of putting an animal down.

Shooting, where practical, has many important benefits not offered by most of the other suggestions.

There are probably methods I may not have considered but I believe what I have presented are among the most common.  I believe that the first and most important quality of the breeder is consideration for the animal that is to be killed and compassion for what emotion it might sense to the choice that has been made for its fate.  Having the degree of power we do over the lives of the animals under our care, the breeder must be a person capable of great empathy while still having the capability to make the hard decisions when necessary.  Euthanasia should always be a difficult choice to make and be one of the most unpleasant of tasks for the breeder to contend with, yet it must never be a task that is shirked when intervention is called for.



John W. Jones

Copyright March 2006 All rights reserved

Verlannahill Rabbitry