Euthanasia for Horses

After three days of colic, the horse's pain finally is subdued by various drugs and the anesthetic gas. The ventilator now is breathing for the horse, which has been placed on his back and a large incision made in his abdomen to allow for discovery of the problem-approximately 20 feet of strangulated and dead small intestine. The horse is extremely sick from the release of toxins from the leaking bowel and is doing poorly under anesthesia. The horse's blood pressure is falling despite aggressive treatment, and the blood oxygen concentration is low. The prognosis for this horse is guarded due to the degree of inflammation within the abdomen and the difficulty in maintaining the vital parameters while under anesthesia. The surgeon leaves the table to make a phone call.

The surgeon explains the situation to the owner, offering the option of continuing in the face of a guarded prognosis and an estimated cost of $10,000 or more with a chance the horse might die from complications, or stop now and "put the horse to sleep" (euthanasia). In this particular case, the horse was euthanized while under anesthesia.

This case illustrates two factors of reality that often come into play when making the decision to euthanize a horse: 1) the lack of ability to offer a good prognosis due to some of the limits of large animal medicine and surgery at this point, and 2) financial concerns.

The process of euthanasia generally is accepted as a method to eliminate pain and suffering in animals, but still is a very controversial act to many groups of people or individual cultures. This article is not going to discuss the debate over the ethical and moral boundaries regarding the subject of euthanasia, nor do I want to enter the animal welfare or animal rights issues. Everyone has a right to his or her opinion and the right to make legal decisions that he or she  feels are the right ones. My goal here is to reflect on some of my experiences, stimulate some thought regarding the matter, and offer some information so that you as a horse owner can make a decision that is right for you if the situation occurs.

Make Your Decisions

Euthanasia is very much an individual decision and, regardless of the situation, always is a difficult one to make or even talk about. To take the life of an animal -- no matter how hopeless its medical situation appears -- is an extremely difficult decision to make and task to perform. The decision comes easier for some people, while others need to exhaust all possible options, at any cost, before considering euthanasia. Also, different cultural backgrounds can play a role in the decision. For example, the Buddhist faithful believe that any interference with the course of natural death will have a negative impact on what is to come after death -- for people and animals alike.

The bottom line is that in our culture, euthanasia is an option for animals to end or prevent pain and suffering. There are no set rules regarding the euthanasia of an animal (other than if it is to be done, it is performed in as humane a way as possible). It is technically legal for an animal to be euthanized just because he or she is no longer wanted -- a fact all to well known to those who work at an animal shelter. The question of moral and ethical soundness of this fact is a well-debated one and will most likely remain so for some time.

I think it is good to give this subject some thought when not in the middle of a crisis. Yes, it is difficult to imagine the gravity of that decision unless faced with it, but it is in the best interest of your horse to give it some thought. It is also in the best interest of your family. I have seen it go both ways. There are those people that when asked "what would you do if your horse needed surgery," reply "Well, I'd just put them to sleep." But, when the time comes, that is the last thing they could think of doing. I have seen the opposite, too.

Be honest with yourself and try to give it some thought and make a plan. This is important because in many situations where euthanasia is a legitimate option, time is of the essence. As a veterinarian, there is nothing more frustrating than caring for a severely painful horse in need of colic surgery while the owners are conferencing for hours trying to make a decision. I am not being cruel -- the fact is that for many of these conditions, as the minutes tick by, the prognosis gets worse and worse. In many cases, this time is critical if an attempt is to be made to save the horse.

I was working on a horse with colic with the instructions that if the horse became worse, it was to be put to sleep. After six hours, the horse did become worse and we were asked to do the surgery -- these sorts of delays in decision-making usually are not in the best interest of the horse (this horse did not make it). If the horse belongs to your children (or it is actually yours and you let the kids use it), they should be made aware of life's unfair realities. As a family, try to have some idea of what you would do if faced with the decision when time is of the essence. Also, make sure the kids are clear on just what "put them to sleep" means. I was involved in one situation where the children thought it was literal "sleep" and were unaware that  the horse was gone. The situation was devastating, so as difficult as it might be, make sure they know what is really going to happen.

Share Your Decisions

You need to make sure that your wishes are known to anyone who might be caring for your horse should you be away or unavailable. Another frustrating situation that occurs frequently is "sitting on" an emergency that needs immediate care with nobody in the room knowing the owner's wishes. Depending on your stable situation, make sure that your wishes regarding emergency surgery or care are known. Always leave phone numbers while you are away, and make sure that any attendants caring for the horses know what to do in case of an emergency. Remember, in many situations, time is of the essence. An hour or two spent trying to get permission for a procedure can mean the difference between life and death.

It definitely is in the best interest of the horse if you give this some thought. If you own horses for a lifetime, there is a good chance you will be faced with the decision at some point. What would you do if asked to spend $6,000-$8,000 for a surgery? There are a growing number of insurance companies that offer major medical/surgery coverage as part of their packages. In addition, there is a "wellness" program offered by one of the major pharmaceutical companies. (Ask your veterinarian.)

Financial constraints are a reality, as are other factors such as the horse's age, current use, probability of returning to usefulness, and/or other medical problems. All of these play a role in making a decision.

The veterinarian's role in a euthanasia situation is to provide a diagnosis and present the various treatment options, as well as offer some form of prognosis. Make sure you understand the information you are given. Don't be afraid to ask questions regarding the disease, treatment options, cost of treatment, and prognosis. You need to understand the situation to your best ability before making a decision. Keep in mind that there is no crystal ball for your individual case. A prognosis for many individual diseases is based on percentages of other horses which suffered similar problems and their outcome. The percentages reflect what is most likely to happen with your animal, but there is no way to know for sure what the outcome will be for your horse -- a fact that can cause the decision-making process to be more difficult.

One thing that I personally feel is unfair is to ask your veterinarian what he or she would do "if it was their horse." Your veterinarian can help you make a decision, but it really does need to be your decision. You need to do what is best for your personal situation, and what is best for the horse.

When I was a veterinary student working in the small animal clinic, I was taking care of a cat that was presented for a "lump" in the middle of her neck. The cat was a very old outdoor cat and had a history of being sick during the past year. The lump was cancer and had the potential to cause damage in the neck area. There was some interest in surgical removal of the neck mass, but the owner had a difficult time justifying the cost of the surgery for a cat that had a life expectancy of less than a year. While discussing the situation with the owner, she confided in me regarding her fear of not wanting people at school to think she was a "bad person" if she did not have the surgery performed. After assuring her that the decision was really hers and that not doing the surgery was a realistic option, she was at peace with her decision.

The important thing was to make sure that the cat was looked after and not allow the mass or illness to compromise the cat's quality of life. The cat was euthanized after one more summer of outdoor life. In many situations, the animal's loss of a normal quality of life is an important deciding factor regarding euthanasia.

The Final Decision

If the decision to euthanize a horse is made, the next difficult question is if you want to be present when it is done. Despite the humane methods being used, it is no easy thing to witness. The most common method of euthanasia is by injecting an overdose of a barbiturate anesthetic. The horse is typically sedated with one of the common tranquilizers prior to injection of the lethal drug. The process is very much like placing the horse under anesthesia. The horse loses consciousness very quickly after injection of the barbiturate before falling to the ground. The fall is grotesque because it is usually difficult to control the way a 1,000-pound horse falls to the ground.

There are a number of reflexes that can cause some limb movement and muscle movement despite the horse's being unconscious. As the brain reaches a coma-like state from the barbiturate overdose, the nerve center that controls breathing stops functioning and subsequently so does breathing. There is often a reflex "gasping," but remember that the horse is unconscious. A short time after breathing stops, the heart stops pumping blood. The horse typically is "brain-dead" within 10 minutes after the injection. If you need to be there, just be prepared and realize that during the fall and any other body movement, the horse is unconscious.

Another method of euthanasia that is considered humane -- if it is performed correctly   -- is gunshot. This never should be attempted except by a highly trained individual. If performed incorrectly, it is horrible; the horse's brain is not right between the eyes.

Another thing to consider is what to do with the horse's body. Many people will bury the horse on the farm. If on-farm burial is considered, be sure that it does not violate any zoning ordinances and that the grave is appropriate. It is a tradition of Thoroughbred farms to bury the parts of the horse that make him a great racehorse -- the head, heart, and hooves.

In areas where zoning prevents on-farm burial or when that is not possible for other reasons, there are a growing number of "pet cemeteries" that will accommodate horses. If the horse dies at a hospital, you should consider allowing a necropsy (an animal autopsy) for scientific benefit. The results of a necropsy can provide some comfort in confirming exactly what was going on and can be of great benefit for veterinary medical education. In some cases, necropsy results will provide valuable information for the farm with respect to disease management. The body of a horse necropsied at most hospitals often is cremated. With regards to cremation, there are some facilities offering cremation where the ashes can be returned to the owner, but in many crematories, it is difficult to retrieve the ashes due to the size of the unit required for such a large body. In some areas, the only option is to have the carcass rendered.

About the Author

Michael Ball, DVM

Michael A. Ball, DVM, completed an internship in medicine and surgery and an internship in anesthesia at the University of Georgia in 1994, a residency in internal medicine, and graduate work in pharmacology at Cornell University in 1997, and was on staff at Cornell before starting Early Winter Equine Medicine & Surgery located in Ithaca, N.Y. He is also an FEI veterinarian and works internationally with the United States Equestrian Team.

Ball authored Understanding The Equine Eye, Understanding Basic Horse Care, and Understanding Equine First Aid, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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