When a horse’s time has come

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At times the decision to euthanize is clearly obvious, even with an apparent immediacy. It is a self-evident ending when the horse has a fatal injury or an unrelenting illness. However all scenarios are not so straightforward, especially when individuals are confronted with situations of illness, injuries or aging that slowly taints the quality of a horse’s life.

Such circumstances are not uncommon within the aging equine population. These experiences often affect the individuals involved in intensely emotional ways.

Owners faced with such a dilemma with their beloved equine companions often agonize and anguish over such a decision, doing their best to make a wise and timely choice. The decision 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 the animal’s conditions and present available options. Ultimately the decision rests with the horse’s guardian. Certainly there are written guidelines outlining animal suffering and pain, yet quality of life is subjective. The sensitivity of individuals to the pain and suffering of another being varies greatly.

Furthermore horses, as sentient beings, have varying abilities to tolerate/deal with illness and pain as well. Clear decision-making is blurred by advances in medical treatment. This further compounds the emotional burden of owners whom often want to know that they have done everything they possibly could.

“When is the time right?” No one really knows the answer to that question for sure. Mindfully looking to and reading the horse itself will bring the most genuine of answers as to “good 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, eating, travelling together, and grooming one another, distress mentally and physically.

The next question to ask is, “Can the horse eat well?” Not all horses rationed on gruel diets are content about their fate. 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.

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.

The next question, although more subjective, has answers equally valid. Has the horse’s approach/attitude to life changed? As horses become weary with chronic illness such as laminitis, arthritis, or heaves they become dull, disinterested, and indifferent to the happenings surrounding them.

Another question to consider is, “Does the horse require care 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.

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

About the author


Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.



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