Assessing unconsciousness in livestock at slaughter

Merel Verhoeven

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Assessing unconsciousness in livestock at different stages of the slaughter process is a legal requirement according to EU legislation. The assessment can be based on absence of readily observable indicators (behavioural indicators, physical signs and reflexes) or, under experimental conditions, by recording and subsequent assessment of brain activity as presented in an electroencephalogram (EEG). There is no consensus, however, to what extent different behavioural indicators, physical signs and reflexes accurately reflect unconsciousness. The aim of this thesis was to study the relationships between these readily observable indicators and EEG activity to provide information on 1. the exact point in time at which animals lose consciousness when subjected to different stunning and slaughter methods and 2. the validity of behavioural indicators, physical signs and reflexes used to assess unconsciousness at slaughter under commercial conditions. The results showed a large variation in time to loss of consciousness, based on EEG activity, both between stunning and slaughter procedures and amongst animals. Captive bolt stunned calves lost consciousness instantly following the stun. Loss of consciousness in pigs during CO2 stunning varied from 21 to 61 s after start of the exposure. An increased CO2 concentration decreased the time to loss of consciousness. Times to loss of consciousness in sheep slaughtered without stunning varied from 6 to 24 s. In cattle slaughtered without stunning, times to loss of consciousness varied from 14 s up to over two minutes. Following captive bolt stunning in calves, absence of reflexes indicated unconsciousness. When consciousness was lost gradually (e.g. CO2 stunning and non-stunned slaughter) none of the readily observable indicators could identify the exact point in time at which animals lost consciousness. Absence of rhythmic breathing, corneal reflex- and eyelid reflex were valid indicators of unconsciousness following CO2 stunning and non-stunned slaughter, but these indicators were quite conservative as they were initially absent long after EEG activity indicated unconsciousness. When presence of these indicators would require (re)stunning, many animals will have to be (re)stunned. The results also showed that under full commercial conditions, stunning effectiveness must be closely monitored by slaughter plant employees, since risks for stun failures are higher under commercial conditions compared to experimental conditions.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Kemp, Bas, Promotor
  • Gerritzen, Marien, Co-promotor
  • Hellebrekers, L.J., Co-promotor, External person
Award date11 Nov 2016
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789462579064
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • livestock
  • slaughter
  • animal welfare
  • stunning
  • electroencephalograms
  • animal behaviour
  • consciousness
  • animal production
  • animal health
  • pigs
  • cattle
  • sheep


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