SDSU Equine Specialist: Understanding euthanasia

Farm Forum

The word ‘euthanasia’ musters different emotions and experiences for people. The term and the associated process means ‘good death’. It is the intentional causing of a painless and quick death. At first thought, the death of a horse is terrible. However, there may be reasons that euthanasia can be the right thing for a horse.

What are some reasons to consider euthanasia?

As caretakers of horses, it is our responsibility to ensure their well-being. This means providing fresh water and horse-appropriate feed, shelter, and addressing health issues. It is possible for a horse to reach a time in their life due to age, injury, or disease that their movement or the ability to eat or drink become impaired. It is also possible that no matter the care of provisions, a horse is unable to maintain a healthy body weight. The inability to move freely can be devastating to horses as they are herd-bound prey animals. A lack of ability or desire to eat, or a lack of their body’s ability to utilize nutrients effectively when they consume feeds may lead to a painful road of weight loss and loss of body function.

Euthanizing a perfectly healthy, sound, and well-mannered horse without efforts to rehome or repurpose would likely be looked upon negatively by the public. However, not every horse is blessed with these attributes. Horses may become severely injured through accidents or as a result of natural disasters. Additionally age, illness, and severe starvation may limit the functionality and ability of a horse to move freely and seek food and water. Horses that pose an imminent threat to themselves, other animals, and especially humans pose a danger in society. For example, horses that habitually kick, bite, or strike at people, and those with self-mutilating tendencies may only be helped to a certain extent by training and management. Horses that have contracted a significant and highly contagious or zoonotic disease are often euthanized to limit the spread of potentially devastating effects on others.

The decision to euthanize may not be easy. However, it is wise to consider the animal and the quality of life that they are facing. Horses that are experiencing untreatable pain, a collective 20% loss in body weight, or who are lacking the ability to seek and consume food and water arguably have compromised quality of life. These are more obvious end-points. Another perspective on quality of life can be achieved by evaluating if horses are able to be and act as horses. Are they living with limitations that prevent them from doing the things that horses do?

Several factors influence the decision

Several factors can influence the decision to euthanize, and will vary from person to person and from one scenario to the next. Cultural factors may influence whether an individual views a horse as livestock or a companion. Awareness of and exposure to animal stewardship may also factor into the decision. People who have worked with many animals and are familiar with injury, disease, and the potential for decrease quality of life have personal experiences to draw upon. An individual who has spent much time on the care and support of their horse and who is now faced with the decision of euthanasia may be caught in the “Caring and Killing” paradox, and is facing tremendous emotion and responsibility with the decision. Lack of knowledge or understanding of the process of euthanasia can delay or impair an individual’s decision to euthanize. For example, someone who thinks that death may be a terrifying and painful process doesn’t understand the process of euthanasia. Scientific support in the form of veterinary expertise regarding health and prognosis can be helpful when making the decision. Finally, economics and the sheer ability to afford extended or extensive care for a horse may provide a limiting factor.

What are the methods of euthanasia?

There are three acceptable methods for euthanizing a horse, all of which should be performed by a veterinarian or individual with appropriate training. The objective of each method is to render the animal unconscious so they do not feel pain or fear during their death. This can be achieved through chemical methods or via physical destruction of the brain. The first method of euthanasia is a lethal dose of barbiturates. A veterinarian provides sedation and the barbiturate. The horse will generally collapse within 17-30 seconds at which point they no longer have perception of pain or fear. Next, the horse will begin breathing more slowly and they will die of cardiac arrest. In this process the horse will gasp a terminal breath of air and may paddle their legs. These final movements can be traumatic for an owner who thinks their horse is in pain, or trying to recover. However, these motions are involuntary and the horse has no consciousness at this point. Another method of euthanasia is a carefully aimed (never flush with head) and skillfully fired gunshot. A 12-gauge shotgun with slug cartridge or a 38-caliber handgun with solid, round-end bullet is recommended. Captive bolt is the final method. For this method, the horse’s head needs to be restrained, and the bolt should be properly placed flush on the head. When euthanizing by gunshot or captive bolt, it is imperative that a skilled person is involved. Many people are unaware of the correct location of impact for these means of physical trauma. Once the chosen method of euthanasia is applied, the horse will be monitored for respiration, pulse, and blink reflex to confirm death.


Death is an often avoided topic of conversation which can lead to a lack of understanding of the events surrounding the death of an animal. For horses that have a compromised quality of life or who have suffered incurable injuries or illnesses, euthanasia may be a viable solution.