The pentobarbital shortage you might not have known about
Pentobarbital solution—the go-to drug for companion-animal euthanasia—has been in short supply for months. But Kathleen Cooney, DVM, MS, CHPV, CCFP, says there’s no reason you would have known that “unless you do a lot of euthanasias.”
Founder and director of education at the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy, past president of the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IAAHPC), and a member of the 2016 AAHA/IAAHPC End-of-Life Care Guidelines task force, Cooney told NEWStat that word of the shortage never really got out—in part by design. She said no formal announcements were made in an effort to prevent possible hoarding: “We needed to make sure everybody had equal access to the drugs across vet med and shelter industries.”
Most people who know about the shortage found out through social media—or when they tried to order some and couldn’t.
“A shortage of [the chemical] pentobarbital itself is the problem because it means pharmaceutical companies can’t make the pentobarbital solution,” Cooney said. And that’s a big problem, because pentobarbital solution “is the number-one drug that we use here in the United States for companion-animal euthanasia.”
Blair Harding, LLB, LLM, vice president of Vortech Pharmaceuticals, makers of the veterinary euthanasia drug Fatal-Plus, which contains pentobarbital, confirmed that Vortech’s pentobarbital supplier ran into production delays at the end of 2020—delays possibly related to the COVID pandemic—which led to an industry-wide shortage of euthanasia drugs containing pentobarbital this past winter.
Harding says pentobarbital shortages do occasionally happen, but not often: “I think two or three times in the past 20 years.”
Why is pentobarbital the gold standard for companion-animal euthanasia? “It’s a very well-known, well-studied drug that’s extremely effective for euthanasia,” Cooney said. Although she’s experienced pentobarbital shortages in the past, Cooney said this one hasn’t affected her. These days, she performs only a few euthanasias per week and has enough to meet her needs. “But colleagues have been reaching out,” she added.
Cooney said that fortunately, she hasn’t heard of any veterinarians who’ve been unable to perform euthanasia because of the shortage. “It seems like everybody has been able to find it in one way or another, or has pivoted to using an alternative like potassium chloride.” (Per the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2020 Edition, “a solution of potassium chloride [ . . .] injected IV or intracardially in an animal that is unconscious or under general anesthesia is an acceptable way to induce cardiac arrest and death.”)
But the search for alternatives may be ending soon, according to Harding.
He told NEWStat that Vortech received a shipment of pentobarbital from the maker yesterday, which means Vortech should have new shipments of Fatal-Plus available for shipping to distributors by next week, who, in turn, “should be able to start shipping to their customers by the beginning of June.”
This may be true for other companies that make pentobarbital solution, Cooney said. And to make sure you’re covered until those new shipments hit the shelves, Cooney offered this advice: conserve what you have.
“If you need to perform a euthanasia, use only the recommended dose.” Cooney said it’s not unusual for practitioners to use more than the label calls for, just to make sure death is complete, but it’s not necessary. “Dial that back and use only what’s required by label. That way, we’re not using extra, we’re just going with normal dosing, which is still extremely effective.”
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