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Horse euthanasia: When is the ‘right time’ to end suffering

Horse Health: The strong bond most horse owners develop with 
their equine companions makes this a very difficult choice

Sometimes the decision to euthanize a horse and end suffering is clearly obvious.

This can occur when a horse has a severe injury or an unrelenting and non-responsive illness such as laminitis or colic. However, all circumstances are not so straightforward and many times horse owners are confronted with situations of illness, injury or aging that slowly taints the quality of a horse’s life.

Such scenarios have become increasingly common within an aging equine population. Horse owners faced with the dilemma regarding the timely euthanasia of their beloved equine companion often agonize and anguish about the decision in an attempt to do their best to make a wise and timely choice to put their horse down. Given the affection that develops between the owner and horse, these experiences affect many horse owners in intensely emotional ways. The decision to euthanize the horse is equally taxing whether the horse is a sport champion or a child’s pony.

Veterinarians can act as a guide, informing and educating owners about their animal’s conditions and present available options. Ultimately however, the decision rests with the horse’s guardian. Certainly there are written guidelines outlining animal suffering and pain, yet quality of life is perceptual. Horses, as sentient beings, have varying abilities to tolerate illness and pain as well. Clear decision-making is further blurred by advances in medical treatment and costs, for this often compounds the emotional burden of owners who want to know that they have done everything they possibly could for their equine companion.

No one really knows for sure the answer to the question, “When is the time right?” Mindfully looking at the horse itself will bring the most genuine of answers regarding the horse’s quality of life.

“Can the horse move and/or does the horse move comfortably?” Movement is inherent to the nature of a horse and thus intimately linked with its quality of life. Horses that no longer share in the companionship of other horses while eating and moving together, and grooming one another distress mentally and physically. Eventually they separate themselves from others and no longer engage in the movement of life.

The next questions to ask are, “Does the horse eat well?” and, “Can the horse maintain an appropriate body weight throughout all the seasons?” Often aged horses that are dentally challenged can no longer maintain their body condition well enough to remain comfortable when the winter season arrives. A moderate body condition is necessary to stave off the bitter cold of winter. These horses generally show their struggle with weight loss in the late winter/early spring.

If they make it through to spring they temporarily seem to rebound making a recovery when green grass returns. Although appropriate dental care and dietary management can be of value to these horses they often gradually fail over time. Not all horses rationed to special diets are content about these changes. Horse owners aware of such a declining pattern may elect to euthanize their horse on a beautiful fall day after a “good” summer’s life, sparing the horse the hardship of another winter season.

The next question, although more subjective in its answers is equally valid. “Has the horse’s approach and attitude to life changed?” As the horse’s body becomes weary with chronic illness such as laminitis, arthritis, or heaves, the horse itself becomes dull, disinterested, and indifferent to the happenings surrounding it.

“Does the horse require caretaking and financial commitments that are beyond the owner’s capabilities and bank account?” This is not a question of judgment, but one of high pragmatic and practical relevance. Financial and caretaking responsibilities that become burdens can have far-reaching consequences for the family and the animal.

When the decision to euthanize a horse is made, the next question is, “Do you want to be present when the euthanasia is done?” Despite the humane methods being used, euthanasia of a horse can be a difficult and disturbing experience to witness. The most common method of euthanasia is via lethal injection of barbiturate anesthetic. Generally the horse is sedated with a tranquilizer prior to lethal injection. The process is similar to placing the horse under anesthesia as the barbiturate overdose induces a coma-like state of the brain. When the nerve centre that controls breathing stops functioning so does breathing. Another method of euthanasia that is considered humane — if it is performed correctly — is a penetrating captive bolt or gunshot by a highly trained individual.

The final question to consider is, “What will be done with the horse’s body?” Many owners prefer to have their horse buried on the farm. In most circumstances arrangements will need to be made with a backhoe operator to dig the necessary hole. On-farm burials need to comply with appropriateness of zoning or municipality ordinances. In some areas, the option may be available to have the carcass rendered. Presently cremation of such a large carcass is difficult and generally unavailable.

Under the stewardship of nature a horse’s fate is clearly determined. When human beings become stewards and guardians of horses, much of their care and fate is determined from our perspective. All aspects of their care, including euthanasia are best done in honour of their dignity and quality of life.

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