Understanding Equine Euthanasia

Dying is a natural part of life, but many horse owners do not have experience caring for an old or terminally ill horse, finding themselves navigating through unexplored territory. It's not uncommon to experience a wide range of emotions and a sense of uncertainty. At times you may feel you're on a roller coaster, not knowing what lies beyond the next turn. This article is written to help you feel more confident, knowing what to expect and what you can do to care for your horse in his final days and hours of life.

Euthanasia is an English word of Greek origin meaning "good death."

Euthanasia is an English word of Greek origin meaning "good death." Equine euthanasia, euphemistically called "putting a horse down" or "putting a horse to sleep," refers to the practice of intentionally ending a horse's life in order to relieve pain and suffering. In my work, operating a large animal removal service, I've witnessed euthanasia by gunshot and by lethal injection administered by a veterinarian. Of the two, my current preference is lethal injection. However, euthanasia by gunshot is both effective and inexpensive. In this article, I'll offer some guidelines when considering euthanasia for your horse.

Each horse’s end-of-life experience is unique to them, and no one can fully predict what it will be like. Owners play an important role, providing comfort and support to a horse during the euthanasia process. He may not understand what's happening, but just being present with your horse can provide a sense of reassurance.

Making the Tough Decision

Knowing when it's time to say goodbye can be challenging. I know, I was uncertain and hesitant when Skip On A Star became ill and had to be euthanized unexpectedly. Equine veterinarians tell me it's not uncommon, as most people are reluctant to make the tough decision. I've said it so many times it's starting to sound like an old cliche, but facing the loss of a horse is definitely one of the most difficult events in a horse owner's life. The good news, if you can call it that, is your trusted veterinarian can help, advising you when the time has come. As you might expect, euthanasia is part of the curriculum in schools of veterinary medicine. And of the equine veterinarians in private practice, most get the opportunity to maintain their skills. While it's up to you when making the tough decision about euthanasia, it is also the practitioner's right to refuse service if he believes there isn’t a good reason to end your horse's life. In these rare instances, your vet will generally make recommendations for medical treatment. But, ultimately it's a quality of life decision.

When bad days outnumber good days, your horse's quality of life may be compromised. And when that familiar horse-human bond is no longer possible, you should be aware the end is near. The decision for euthanasia needs to be made if your horse is suffering. Here are seven things to consider when discussing the matter with your vet:

  1. Pain. The principal cause of pain in older horses is arthritis. Pain can make a horse so miserable it may lose the desire to eat. Is your horse's pain managed well?
  2. Mobility. Perhaps the most obvious change in an older horse is loss of mobility. Can your horse get up without assistance?
  3. Appetite. Your horse may be "off his feed" for one of several reasons, including illness, unpalatable feed, and gastrointestinal distress. Is your old guy eating enough?
  4. Hydration. It's generally accepted horses prefer clean, fresh water at about 50 degrees, decreasing consumption if the water is colder. Is your horse dehydrated?
  5. Hygiene. The older the horse, the more likely he has painful beans, a buildup smegma of making it difficult to urinate. When was the last time you cleaned your senior horse's sheath? 
  6. Happiness. Most of us know when our horse is unhappy, recognizing his expressions when when he's afraid, bored, or irritated. Does your horse greet you or pin his ears back, turning away upon your arrival? 
  7. Personal Finance. The older horse needs more attention, requiring quarterly or monthly health exams, regular and sometimes intensive hoof care, and frequent dental inspections. Is keeping your geriatric horse alive more than you can afford?

I understand how hard it is for you to watch your horse decline, knowing that some things are outside your control. You’ll miss your horse for the rest of your life, but you wouldn't want him to stay if it extended his suffering. To the extent that you're able, try to understand the reality of the situation, acknowledging your horse's impending death is a part of life.

Be kind to yourself, let others support you, and seek help wherever you find your strength. In my experience, maintaining a regular routine helps, normalizing my life and making me feel better during these difficult times. Above all, please know things will get better in time. Although it's hard to believe right now, time really does heal all wounds. Although your horse won't be here physically, you'll always hold on to the love you've shared. My horse, Skip On A Star still lives on in my heart and soul.

How it Works

If your horse is anxious by nature, the veterinarian may administer a sedative, making him more relaxed and less aware of the lethal injection that follows. However, those attending the euthanasia should know a standing horse will become unconscious, falling when the euthanasia solution is administered. This can be distressing to some horse owners, preferring to excuse themselves in the moments before the final injection is given. 

When administering a euthanasia solution to your horse, the veterinarian may choose pentobarbital sodium and phenytoin sodium, resulting in a humane, painless, and rapid deathIntravenous (IV) administration of these drugs produces a quick anesthetic action and a smooth transition to unconsciousness. Your horse won't experience any pain during this process, feeling like he's going to sleep moments before he stops breathing and his heartbeat ceases.

It's only natural to feel guilty about ordering euthanasia for your horse. Many horse owners say, "I want him to die naturally, not because the vet gave him an injection." However, we forget that anti-inflammatory drugs and intravenous fluid therapies are artificial. The most natural thing in the world is nature taking its course. If we're relieving chronic pain and suffering, we're performing a courageous act of love in the final act of their life.

Considering euthanasia for your horse? Face your equine friend's end-of-life experience with help from Thanicare, offering natural burial, and equine cremation services.

Comment on this post (1 comment)

  • Benjamin says...

    It’s situational to me. If your out in the bush and your horse falls and brekas a leg, having a pistol and a good shot will put a horse out of it’s misery quite quickly. It’s also a humane option if the vet cannot make it out right away and the horse is in an immeasurable amount of pain.The idea of lethal injection is romantic in a sense. The horse just goes to sleep and doesn’t wake up. The fact of the matter is, if the vet doesn’t give a sedative to put the horse to sleep first and merely injects the barbiturates required to stop the heart, I would think that a massive heart attack would be quite painful.So yeah, I guess I would prefer the ultimate of putting the animal to sleep first but if a well placed bullet is necessary, then so be it. The horse wouldn’t even know what was going on.

    March 25, 2015

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