Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Decapitation of Reptiles

Inhumane for euthanasia

©1997 Melissa Kaplan


Decapitation is often times recommended as a humane and easy way to euthanize reptiles. Unfortunately, research indicates that this may not be the case. Clifford Warwick discusses it in Reptiles: Misunderstood, Mistreated and Mass-Marketed (1990; Nower Productions, UK). There are no references given in this booklet written for the carriage trade, but, as a biologist of some note, Warwick has written extensively on ethological* aspects of reptiles and using ethology to identify illness and stress in captivity.

"Some of the many ways in which reptiles are "killed" are mentioned later on but one method which is quite commonly used is decapitation. Generally speaking, in mammals and birds, for example, quickly severing the head from the rest of the body may cause immediate or near immediate loss of consciousness and a very rapid death. It might not be describable as 'humane' but the period of post-severance life in the head is almost certainly short. Although meaning certain death, decapitation is certainly not a rapid or humane way of killing reptiles. As hard to believe as it seems, the heads cut from reptiles live on well after the horrific event of decapitation itself. It is not a case of "nerves causing the head to move unconsciously" as most people think. The heads, and parts of the neck if still attached, are alive and some may attempt to bite objects which approach; the eyes may follow movement and the pupils contract and dilate in response to light and dark; they can blink and in the case of snakes and lizards, flick out and in their tongues to test the air for scent and even move slightly if enough of their neck is left.

"With what movement they can manage they often writhe in agony from the massive severance of tissue. They are virtually helpless, frightened and going to die. If it seems too inconceivable to be true, then think of it as being a case of animals which have had most of their bodies cut away. One might think that suffering of this kind could not be endured for long. If only that were true. Unfortunately, a problem associated with the reptilian metabolism's ability to operate at relatively low oxygen and low blood pressure levels is that nerve tissue is, to put it simply, very tough. Therefore, the nervous system, which of course includes the brain, can function away from the rest of the body for some time. In fact, the activities of decapitated heads mentioned earlier have been recorded as present for around an hour or so. If reptiles are to be killed by physical means (rather than by, say, an injected overdose of an anesthetic), then it has to involve complete and rapid destruction of the brain; otherwise they are very likely to suffer enormously and for a long time before dying."

Other references relating to decapitation include several in Frye (Reptile Care: An Atlas to Diseases and Treatments), and in Manual of Reptiles, the latter of which states:

"Decapitation should not be used as a sole method of euthanasia, unless the brain is destroyed by pithing immediately afterwards (Cooper et al, 1984). The assumption that decapitation results in unconsciousness followed by a rapid deterioration of the nervous system is disputed: the brain remains viable for up to an hour (Cooper et al, 1984).

Freezing is also often recommended as a method of euthanizing reptiles and other animals. In Manual of Reptiles, Lawton cites Cooper JE, Ewbank R, Platt C, and Warwick C. (1989, editors, Euthanasia of Amphibians and Reptiles, Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, Potters Bar), in regards to the painful formation of ice crystals in tissues and on skin, thus precluding hyperthermia as a method of euthanasia.

Frye states that pure carbon dioxide as a method of euthanizing reptiles is not acceptable as, while it induces a state of narcosis, the ability of many reptiles to endure prolonged anoxia (absence of oxygen) precludes death.

*ethology: The scientific and objective study of animal behavior especially under natural conditions.

 Additional Reading
Other articles by Warwick I have found insightful:

Warwick, C. 1990. Important ethological and other considerations of the study and maintenance of reptiles in captivity. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 27(4):363-366.

Warwick, C. 1990. Reptilian ethology in captivity: Observations of some problems and an evaluation of their aetiology. Applied Animal Behavior Science 26:1-13.

Ethology, Ecology and Critical Anthropomorphism

Pain and Analgesia in Herps

Related Articles

Euthanasia of Reptiles

AVMA Panel on Euthanasia, 2000

Need to update a veterinary or herp society/rescue listing?

Can't find a vet on my site? Check out these other sites.

Amphibians Conservation Health Lizards Resources
Behavior Crocodilians Herpetology Parent/Teacher Snakes
Captivity Education Humor Pet Trade Societies/Rescues
Chelonians Food/Feeding Invertebrates Plants Using Internet
Clean/Disinfect Green Iguanas & Cyclura Kids Prey Veterinarians
Home About Melissa Kaplan CND Lyme Disease Zoonoses
Help Support This Site   Emergency Preparedness

Brought to you thanks to the good folks at Veterinary Information Network, Inc.

© 1994-2014 Melissa Kaplan or as otherwise noted by other authors of articles on this site