A Paradigm For Equine Euthanasia

A horse owner develops a relationship with his or her horse that is marked by mutual trust, respect, and affection, much as would be encountered in a relationship between two people who spend several hours every day together doing something enjoyable for both. Overall, the levels of attachment shown by horse owners seem to be increasing. It is highly probable, however, that owners' attachment levels have not really changed over the years. Instead, an increase in their outward expressions of feelings might be attributed to society's increased awareness of the significance of the human-animal bond and to an increasing tolerance for emotional reactions to loss. In veterinary medicine, many professionals are more perceptive about what their clients are feeling and thus are more comfortable indicating to them that expressions of grief are acceptable.

Euthanasia With Owner Present

Euthanasia is being viewed more frequently by veterinary professionals and animal owners alike as both a privilege and a gift that can be lovingly bestowed on ill or injured animals.

The term "euthanasia" is derived from two Greek words--"eu" meaning good" and "thanatos" meaning death. These words qualify euthanasia as "good death." Words such as easy, humane, painless, and loving also are associated with euthanasia. Yet, putting these positive attributes aside, euthanasia remains the purposeful act of taking a life. Therefore, euthanasia of an animal often affects the individual involved in intensely emotional ways.

With this in mind, concerned veterinarians, animal health technicians, and grief counselors from across the country have worked together during the last decade to create and perfect euthanasia protocols that have both the patient's and the client's comfort and well-being in mind. These teams of professionals have considered many variables, including the attitudes of those involved in the euthanasia process, the physical surroundings and aesthetics of the euthanasia site, and the combination of drugs and methods used to induce peaceful and painless death. The ways to prepare a client for an animal's death and to help the owner plan the circumstances surrounding the euthanasia procedure also have been studied.

A New Paradigm

In the new model of euthanasia, it is becoming more common for veterinarians and clients to discuss euthanasia directly and at length. It also is common to allow as much time for the procedure as is needed and possible, to involve an owner in the process as much as possible (without being directly involved with the procedure), and to acknowledge the animal's death, talking openly about it afterward. The new paradigm is much more congruent with what research has told us about healthy grief resolution.

The key word when conducting euthanasia within the new paradigm is choice. This means that for an owner to make wise and timely decisions when faced with an animal's death, he or she must be provided with information and choices by the veterinarian. In the new paradigm, an owner is given choices about as many details as possible. The emotional burdens are shared, and, as a team, veterinarian and client decide when, why, how, and where an animal should die.

Some well-meaning veterinarians discourage owners from witnessing their animal's euthanasia, believing that it is best to shield owners from the experience. Veterinarians also might discourage client presence because they feel that it upsets dying animals, or because they fear that during the procedure the client will become upset. Client safety is another legitimate concern, given the unpredictability of large animal euthanasia.

Without question, it is emotionally painful for an owner to watch a dearly loved animal die; however, clinical experience with owners has shown that being absent when an animal dies might increase the client's feelings of pain and distress. With honest and detailed preparation from a veterinarian, an owner can decide what to or not to witness regarding the animal's death. Then, as long as the methods used are humane, client presence does not need to be the veterinarian's choice -- it can be the client's choice.

Adapted from the chapter "Helping during Large-Animal Euthanasia" from the book The Human-Animal Bond and Grief, by Laurel Lagoni, MS; Carolyn Butler, MS; and Suzanne Hetts, PhD, from the Argus Institute, Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital, with Lydia Miller, DVM, AAEP Owner Education Director.

About the Author

Lydia Gray, DVM, MA

Lydia Gray, DVM, is Medical Director and Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak Equine. She was previously the executive director of the Hooved Animal Humane Society in Woodstock, IL, and an Owner Education Director for the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

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