Is the captive bolt a humane death for horses?
An Animal Rights Article from

FROM Tuesday'sHorse
February 2020

A collection of professional opinions concerning the use of the captive bolt “gun” as a form of euthanasia for horses.

captive bolt
Horses and People Australia. No animal was harmed in the taking of this image. The horse was not about to be put down via the captive bolt. He had been gently sedated for castration and used to capture this image showing where the captive bolt must be placed to achieve its ultimate goal — instantaneous death. Source

Is using a captive bolt to kill a horse just as humane, or perhaps more humane, than say killing a horse with chemicals — or chemical euthanization?

This issue is at the forefront yet again because a horse rescue is reportedly killing unadoptable horses with the captive bolt and incinerating their remains (the “horse rescue”). Unadoptable we hear is by definition at said rescue, a horse who cannot be ridden.

But let’s stay on point. That’s another story for another day.

What the Vets Say

Here’s a collection of professional opinions concerning the use of the captive bolt “gun” as a form of euthanasia for horses.

  • “I have seen it used hundreds of times on cattle and horses and know in my mind that it is very humane and much more instantaneous than (chemical) euthanasia. The animal literally knows nothing.
    –Jerry Black, DVM
  • “I would equate captive bolt with gunshot and consider both as humanely superior to lethal injection when performed properly. The public’s perception of lethal injection as being the only humane procedure parlays to the standards of the veterinary profession in this country–we simply do not teach instanteous lethal trauma. “I do not randomly shoot my patients, but select gunshot for those where lethal injection is cardiovascularly inappropriate as a means of euthanasia or when horses and handlers are placed at risk by the less efficacious lethal injection.”
    –Doug Byars, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, Dipl. ACVECC
  • “In the UK (United Kingdom), the captive bolt is never used for horses. The only weapon designed for humane destruction of horses is the Cash humane pistol single shot. Intravenous agents are always preferred in the UK, but at equestrian events or racing there are circumstances that shooting with a free bullet may still be necessary. The captive bolt is used extensively and apparently quite safely for slaughter of farm animals, particularly cattle.
    –Leo Jeffcott, BVetMed, PhD, FRCVS, DVSc, MA, DSc
  • “Captive bolt in the hands of an experienced person is completely humane because the horse is immediately rendered unconscious. It has the same effect as a gunshot when placed properly. I believe that it is more humane than chemical injection for two reasons. If you watch horses that are euthanized with an injection, many of them experience a period of bewilderment or confusion just before they lose consciousness. There is no doubt that they are aware that something strange is occurring. Second, many of the horses following chemical injection do not die quickly and require a second or third dose. With gunshot or captive bolt, the horses is rendered unconscious immediately.
    –Tom Lenz, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT H
  • “I practiced veterinary medicine from 1956 until recently, and I administered lethal doses of barbiturates for euthanasia countless times. This technique is much slower than captive bolt euthanasia, and frequently required additional injections. I had clients who would prefer a quicker method. On several occasions I used a pistol to euthanize horses. Aside from the danger of gunshot to bystanders (or administrators), the results are infinitely better with the pistol than with barbiturates. Also, I don’t buy the ‘fear and apprehension’ problems that the activists claim. There is no wild-eyed anticipation or screaming when the environment is managed correctly.”
    –Woody Asbury, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM.
  • “Both euthanasia by captive-bolt and lethal anaesthetic overdose have their pros and cons. A lot depends on training and skill. There can be disasters with either technique. A handgun equipped with a captive bolt, instead of a bullet, can wound instead of kill and produce a grisly result. However when placed properly the bolt enters the brain, destroys it in an instant and the horse falls dead to the ground. Although the horse is brain dead and insensible its heart beats for a while and its legs paddle–this can be very upsetting for people who don’t understand the physiology of what is going on. I’m certain that death by captive bolt, performed by a competent operator, is humane for horses. In the slaughter house the major blood vessels at the base of the neck are opened for meat quality reasons. There is no technical difference between a bullet and a captive bolt except there is more risk with the former should a miss occur. The very stringent gun laws in Australia limit ownership of handguns (a captive bolt pistol is classed as a handgun here) to very few people (although veterinarians are eligible) so not many horses are killed this way. Mismanaged lethal injections can be disastrous, too, but that’s anther story.
    –Chris Pollitt, BVSc, PhD

What We Say

A serious point to consider concerning the euthanasia of large animals especially in the horse rescue’s scenario is this:

Is it ethical and humane to have workers and volunteers skilled and unskilled killing horses with a captive bolt, especially in light of the statements made above by licensed, practicing professional veterinarians. Attempting to accurately place a captive bolt in a conscious horse is very challenging. Horses are highly sensitive and intuitive animals. When their emotional level is high horses move and raise their head.

In the meantime, hearsay is that the horse rescue at the center of the current storm have a large animal incinerator at one of its premises.

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