Providing “a good death” for your horse when the time comes

Horse Health: One of the hardest decisions for a horseowner can also be the best for the welfare of the animal

The intense bond between horse and caretaker can make end-of-life decisions emotionally taxing.

The term “euthanasia” comes from the Greek words meaning a “good death” and is the practice of intentionally ending a life to relieve pain and suffering.

At times the decision to euthanize a horse 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 trusted guides informing and educating horse owners about their animal’s health condition and options for treatment, yet, ultimately the decision for euthanasia rests with the horse’s guardian. Quality of life is perceptual and varies between individual people. In addition horses, as sentient beings have varying abilities to tolerate and/or deal with illness and pain. Clear decision-making can be 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?” however, asking questions specific to the horse’s quality of life can be of value in providing clear direction for the decision.

“Can and/or does the horse move comfortably?” Movement is inherent to the nature of a horse and thus intimately connected with their quality of life. Quality of movement for a horse declines when they are no longer able to negotiate their environment safely and comfortably. It is important they engage in behaviours considered to be of value for a decent quality of life such as rolling, laying down and rising with ease, sharing in the companionship of other horses while eating, moving together as a herd and/or grooming.

“Does the horse eat well enough to maintain an appropriate body weight throughout all the seasons?” Often aged horses that are dentally challenged can no longer maintain their body condition adequately to remain comfortable when the winter season arrives.

Winter in Canada can be a particularly brutal mistress for the old, unwell or frail horse with six or more months of cold temperatures, bitter wind chills and hard icy grounds. A moderate body condition is necessary to stave off the bitter cold of winter. As the condition of a horse’s teeth becomes poor and/or poorer they begin to show their struggle as weight loss in the late winter and/or early spring with a recovery of weight only once the green grass returns. These horses require appropriate dental care and dietary management to sustain adequate body condition throughout the winter months. Despite the additional care many of these horses will gradually fall behind and fail as the years pass. Horse owners who are aware of such a declining pattern often elect to euthanize their horse on a beautiful fall day after a “good” summer’s life, sparing the horse the hardship and uncertain fate of another inevitably hard winter season.

“Has the horse’s approach and/or 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. Although the answer to this question tends to be subjective in nature, it is equally valid when assessing the quality of a horse’s life.

“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’s quality of life.

When the decision to euthanize a horse has been made the owner will need to ask themselves if they would like to be present when the horse is euthanized. Despite the humane methods being used, euthanasia of a horse can be a difficult and disturbing experience for some to witness. The most common method of euthanasia is sedation of the horse with a tranquilizer followed by a lethal injection, that is an anesthetic overdose. Other methods of euthanasia that are considered to be equally humane, if it is performed correctly, are a penetrating captive bolt or a well-placed bullet.

The final question for consideration is, “What will become of the horse’s body?” Many owners prefer to have their horse buried on the farm. If so, arrangements will need to be made with a backhoe operator to dig the necessary hole. On-farm burials varying between jurisdictions need to comply with appropriateness of zoning or municipality ordinances. In some locations, the option may be available to have the carcass rendered. Although cremation of such a large carcass is currently available it tends to be quite costly.

Under the stewardship of Mother Nature a horse’s fate is clearly determined as natural forces have little patience for the timelines of palliative or hospice care. When human beings become stewards and guardians of horses, much of the horse’s care and fate is determined from a human construct. Timely, euthanasia may very well be one of the kindest and most meaningful acts of responsible horsemanship.

About the author


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

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