There comes a time in nearly all horse owners' lives when the last, best thing they can do for their horses is to release them from the agony of an untreatable condition or terminal illness via euthanasia. In some situations, the decision to euthanize is clear--a painful, devastating accident from which there is no recovery; an acute, fatal disease from which the horse is constantly suffering; or age taking away the horse's ability to move about and live comfortably. But often, the horse's injury or terminal illness is one where it might be difficult for the owner to determine if there is enough quality of life to offset a horse's discomfort or diminished lifestyle, or whether the horse has spiraled downward to the point where there is nothing much left in life for the horse to enjoy.
The whole painful process--deciding when the time has arrived, disposing of remains, dealing with grief--can be made less stressful when everything involved with the euthanasia process is understood and decisions are planned ahead of time.
Planning the Unpleasant
"We live in a society that feels that planning ahead about death is morbid," says Carolyn Butler, the former director of the Argus Institute Support Services at Colorado State University (CSU) Veterinary Teaching Hospital; Gail Bishop is the Argus Institute's current director. "We know from research that if people spend a bit of time thinking about what would be appropriate, then when the event occurs, particularly if it's an emergency, better decisions can be made," she continues. "Often, when people get to a crisis point, they're less likely to make good decisions."
Greg Couger, M. Ed. (Master of Education), a former grief counselor and educator at CSU, agrees. He adds, "Planning ahead gives the horse owner time to focus more on the emotions associated during the euthanasia process and more quality time to spend with the animal, as opposed to dealing with more of the business aspect of handling remains, and so on."
Horse owners should decide in advance how far they would want to proceed with treatment options and how much they can afford to spend on treatment. If an owner travels, he or she should leave clear instructions with the veterinarian on what to do if the animal takes a turn for the worst. "Set bottom lines in advance," Butler advises.
Think about, and discuss with family, when they want to say their farewells (before, during, or after euthanasia) and whether they want to be present during the procedure. Being able to say goodbye when one chooses--i.e., before instead of after euthanasia--can eliminate from an already stressful situation the frustration of not having been able to share a final moment with the horse when the owner preferred.
Stresses Butler, "Children are also very attached to their animals, and they need an opportunity to say goodbye. Even if parents decide not to have them present at the time of euthanasia, they definitely need to be involved in the decision...and in the goodbye process at an age-appropriate level."
Butler recognizes that if someone has a healthy yearling, they're probably not going to call around for rendering rates or give tremendous thought to how they'd handle euthanasia. Still, fatal accidents or illnesses can strike horses of any age, so owners should at least know what their options are.
"For those who have an animal that's beginning to fail, if it looks like the horse only has a couple of weeks or couple of months left, the owner would benefit by putting a plan in place," Butler says. Even for healthy older horses, it's a good idea to give thought to bottom-line treatment and expenses, and how remains will be handled.
When is the Time Right?
One of the toughest aspects of euthanasia can be deciding when the horse's condition is such that it would be more humane to put him down. In other words, consider how diminished the horse's quality of life should become before the owner says, "Enough."
Again, thinking ahead about this prospect when the horse is not in a crisis situation will yield clearer decisions. Many owners opt to keep the horse going until they perceive he's suffering too much. Others feel it's more humane to let the horse go before he reaches that point.
Explains Butler, "The owner might say, 'I don't want the death to be unpredictable. I don't want him to die in pain, so even though we have a little bit of time left, I'm going to proceed with the euthanasia, because I want to ensure the death goes a certain way.' Sometimes I'll hear owners say they think winter will be really hard on their old horses, so they euthanize a little earlier to protect their animals from discomfort."
Sometimes the answer is obvious as to when to put the horse down. Virginia veterinarian Sean Bowman, DVM, says, "In an acute situation where the horse is in severe pain and the prognosis is very, very poor, the decision to euthanize is usually a lot easier. You can pretty much say this is the right thing to do, and the time to do it is now."
But with geriatric horses or horses with chronic diseases or conditions, quality of life might be harder to measure and the decision on when to euthanize less distinct. Sometimes an owner is tempted to keep a horse going at all possible costs.
Notes Philip J. Johnson, BVSc (Hons), DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, MRCVS, professor of equine medicine and surgery at the University of Missouri, "Horses today are living longer due to better nutrition and medicine. However, many live with pain and disability because their owners prefer to 'treat' rather than request euthanasia for horses that, in the past, would have been euthanized. There are a lot of horses in our area which are being maintained beyond what many would refer to as humane."
When the line between euthanasia and treatment is blurry, Butler suggests the owner try to see if the horse is beginning to have more bad days than good days. "It's not that the animal is in excruciating pain, but the quality of life has begun to fade," she says. Chronic signs of a diminished quality of life could include inappetence, severe weight loss, difficulty in moving around, inability to get comfortable, spending a lot of time laying down, and depression.
"Does the animal still enjoy doing the things he's always enjoyed?" asks Ellen Buck, DVM, former director of Equine Protection at the Humane Society of the United States and an equine practitioner in Maryland. Although the veterinarian might recommend euthanasia in acute situations, he or she might not always be able or willing to tell you when the time has come for the fading animal. Says Buck, "I leave a lot of that decision-making up to the owner because they are there day to day and may be in a better position to assess the horse's quality of life."
Although quality of life is a primary consideration on when to euthanize, there are other realities that come into play:
Age: Consider the horse's age when it comes to treatment options. Asks Bowman, "Should they take a 25-year-old horse to colic surgery? What is the potential outcome the horse is likely to have? What does the owner want to do with the horse? What will the value of the horse be after surgery?"
Difficulty of Nursing: Another major consideration is if the horse is going to require treatment several times a day, every day, for a long period of time. Notes Bowman, "If the owner has a full-time job and is not going to be there, then the care is not going to be there to maintain the animal's quality of life. People can't stop their whole lives for their horses. If they are unable to provide the proper care, it may be better for the horse to put the horse down."
Cost:The cost to treat or manage a condition can be beyond an owner's resources. "Cost of care is a consideration and sometimes takes precedence over other things, and rightly so," says Buck. "Sometimes the cost of treating a chronic illness in the horse can be more than the owner can bear in addition to the routine cost of maintenance of the horse. If the cost of care combined with the quality of life is such that someone can't keep up with them, those are definitely valid considerations for euthanasia."
It's difficult to deny treatment because of expense, but that's a reality of life. Deciding ahead of time how much financial resources can be committed to the horse's health can ease the stress within the family when the financial boundaries are defined in advance, and those limits are finally reached.
Occasionally, an owner who can't keep up with medical expenses might place the horse with someone who can. However, the odds of someone wanting an unsound, older, or chronically ill horse are low. Says Buck, "An owner may send the horse to auction hoping someone will pick him up, but chances are that won't happen. We'd rather see a horse humanely euthanized than have an owner send him to auction where he may potentially end up at slaughter." At auction, Buck warns, the horse might be held in a small, overcrowded pen with unfamiliar horses where he could be hurt by more aggressive animals. Euthanasia is the more humane choice, she says.
When euthanasia is imminent, the owner should find a quiet moment to say goodbye. Says Butler, "If you know in advance your horse is not going to do well, it provides a very special time to say your goodbyes, to say your 'I love you's, to say 'I'm sorry' if you need to. It's important that people have complete endings with their animals, to know that whatever needed to be said has been said. People will then have a more positive grief outcome in the long run.
The Euthanasia Process
When considering whether family members will be with the horse during the euthanasia, make sure the veterinarian explains the process and what can happen after the horse is injected.
The primary method of euthanasia is via a euthanasia solution. "The main method is an overdose of barbiturates," explains Bowman. "It is an induction to anesthesia, just like for surgery, but the veterinarian continues on to an overdose. The horses are not afraid; there is no fear or anticipation."
Onset of unconsciousness is very rapid, then the horse goes down. Occasionally, the unconscious horse does not always collapse neatly and quietly, which can be hard for the owner to witness. "Sometimes the horse goes over backwards and may briefly thrash around some," says Buck. "But loss of brain consciousness happens first, the movement is involuntary muscle activity, and that horse is not aware of it at all."
A less-used means of putting a horse down is by gunshot, which is sometimes used in emergencies by police when the horse is suffering and a veterinarian can't get there fast enough. Buck says that gunshot euthanasia is also commonly used in Britain due to rendering requirements involving the euthanasia solution in horses' bodies. "It's my understanding that gunshot euthanasia is a very humane technique if done correctly because it's absolutely immediate," she says. "The thought is not pretty, but the death can be peaceful."
Buck points out, though, that the horse's brain is not large and is surrounded by a lot of bone, therefore the gun has to be placed absolutely correctly by someone who understands what they are doing.
Disposal of Remains
Dealing with equine remains is cumbersome and sometimes costly. "Horses are really big," Bowman points out. "Getting rid of a horse's body is not like that of a dog that you can bury in the backyard. This becomes a big issue once the animal is dead, and is the biggest decision to make after deciding to put the horse to sleep."
Because it can be time-consuming to investigate options, planning ahead facilitates the disposal. Check with a local veterinarian, local/regional bereavement centers, or friends for disposal options.
Advance planning should include how to handle the remains, who to contact to deal with the body, and how much advance notification is needed for the person who'll handle the remains. Also, the issue of what to do with the remains should be discussed by family members, including any children.
Depending on local zoning laws, the most common choices for handling remains include hiring a backhoe to bury the horse on the owner's property, hiring a rendering company to pick up the horse, or sending remains to a pet cemetery or crematorium. Bowman adds that in some areas where foxhunting is popular, the remains are sometimes fed to the hounds. "This is considered by foxhunters to be an appropriate, proud end to the horse," he says. "It's a tradition."
And When It's Over...
The loss of a horse can be just as pronounced as the loss of a friend or family member. Says Butler, "Grief is grief. That animal was unique, the relationship was unique, and that particular animal will never exist in the owner's life again. That is a significant loss. So many times, our relationships with our animals are pure--no history of betrayal, no history of letting us down. The relationship has been clean all the way through and, therefore, the grief can go to a deep level. We should expect that if the attachment is really strong, the grief is going to be strong, too."
Butler says it's a mistake to try to put a time frame on the grieving process. "It may take people days, weeks, months, or years, depending on the relationship and type of death...The key is not how long it takes for the person to get through it, but that the grief lessens in intensity over time."
Talking a loss over with friends or with bereavement counselors can also help ease the pain. Local counselors can be found in the phone book, through the veterinarian, the regional veterinary teaching hospital, or online. The Argus Institute at CSU, the Delta Society, and the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement are some sites that explain the grieving process, provide information on coping with pet loss, recommend reading materials for various ages, list pet loss counselors and pet loss support hotlines, identify pet cemeteries and memorials, and offer chat rooms and e-mail assistance.
You can honor a departed horse with a charitable donation in memoriam. For example, the American Association of Equine Practitioners Research and Education Foundation's memorial program allows an owner or veterinarian to donate (funding equine research, educational programs, and scholarships) in the name of the horse (or a human).
The bond between horse and owner can be very strong and deep. As the horse's caretaker and decision maker, you must be prepared in case of emergency, when your horse is depending on you. Planning today makes that easier when the time comes.
About the Author
Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.