When is it time to say goodbye?

Farm Forum

There may come a time when, for humane or other reasons, you need to consider euthanasia for your horse. Choosing whether, or when, to end a beloved animal’s life may be the hardest decision you ever have to make regarding your horse’s welfare. However, it may be one of the most responsible and compassionate things we can do for our horses.

The decision to euthanize, or induce a painless death, should never be made without careful consideration. The right choice is clearly the one that is in the best interest of the horse.

Euthanasia is often a highly emotional issue. It is important to address the situation from a practical standpoint. Whether you are dealing with an emergency or a long-term illness, discuss the following questions with your veterinarian to help you decide what is right for your horse:

• What is the likelihood of recovery or at least a return to pasture soundness or some level of usefulness?

• Is the horse suffering?

• How long will the horse experience the current level of pain or debility?

• Does the horse continue to show an interest and desire to live, or has it become depressed or despondent?

• What kind of special care will the horse require, and can you meet its needs?

• Can you continue to provide for the horse financially?

• What are your alternatives?

AAEP guidelines

The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) has developed euthanasia guidelines to help your veterinarian assist you during this very difficult time. The AAEP’s standards apply to all horses, regardless of their monetary value, and are designed to avoid or terminate incurable and excessive suffering. The following are guidelines to assist in making humane decisions regarding euthanasia of horses:

• A horse should not have to endure continuous or unmanageable pain from a condition that is chronic and incurable.

• A horse should not have to endure a medical or surgical condition that has a hopeless chance of survival.

• A horse should not have to remain alive if it has an unmanageable medical condition that renders it a hazard to itself or its handlers.

• A horse should not have to receive continuous analgesic medication for the relief of pain for the rest of its life.

• A horse should not have to endure a lifetime of continuous individual box stall confinement for prevention or relief of unmanageable pain or suffering.

Additionally, in accordance with the American Veterinary Medical Association’s position on the euthanasia of unwanted animals, the AAEP is not opposed to the euthanasia of unwanted animals, when appropriate, by properly trained personnel, using acceptable humane methods.

The veterinarian’s role

Your veterinarian can provide you with medical information and help you fully understand the implications for the horse’s future. Your veterinarian can also explain the options, and offer comfort and support. Your veterinarian cannot make the decision for you, but can help educate you about your horses quality of life. If you are in doubt about the prognosis or your options, get a second opinion. It is important for your peace of mind that you feel sure you are making the right decision.

Remember, too, that a veterinarian must follow his or her conscience. A veterinarian may refuse to euthanize an animal if euthanasia seems unnecessary or unjustified or the veterinarian may choose to discontinue treatment if an owner is inhumanely allowing an animal to suffer or is unduly prolonging its inevitable death.

Planning and preparation

If you and your veterinarian agree that euthanasia is the best choice, it is important to prepare as best you can. If you are able to make the decision in advance rather than in an emergency situation, making prior arrangements will ease the process. These guidelines might help:

• Decide when and where the procedure will be best carried out, bearing in mind that arrangements must be made for removal of the body. Choose what is most comfortable and practical for you, your veterinarian, and your horse.

• If you board your horse, inform the stable manager of the situation.

• Decide whether you or other family members wish to be present during the procedure.

• Make arrangements in advance for the prompt removal and disposal of the body. Removal to a rendering facility, university or burial at home are common options.

• Explain to members of your family, especially children, in sensitive but honest terms, why the decision was made to euthanize the horse. Consider allowing anyone who wishes to be present there including children.

• Allow yourself to grieve. Finding a support person to talk with can help you work through this difficult period.

• If the horse is insured, notify the insurance company in advance so that there are no problems with claims. While the veterinarian will provide you with any required documentation, the rest (notification, filing, follow-up, etc.) is your responsibility.

What to expect

As a caring owner, you want your horse to have a peaceful, painless end. Most commonly, euthanasia is achieved by injecting a barbiturate anesthetic in a dose sufficient to shut down the horse’s central nervous system. The drug renders the horse unconscious, the horse’s heart stops, and the horse quits breathing. These drugs act similar to an overdose of anesthesia.

If you plan to be present when the lethal injection is given, keep in mind that not all horses respond in exactly the same way. Most horses simply drop and lay still, maybe taking one or two deep breaths before expiring. Some horses continue to take occasional breaths for a brief time, and there may be some movement of the limbs, even though the horse is deeply unconscious and may no longer have a heartbeat. Seeing these signs of life can be upsetting for some owners. One needs to remember that these movements do not indicate that the horse is conscious or has any sense of feeling; they are simply involuntary reflexes by the body in its final moments.

Plan ahead

Death is an inevitable part of life. Your horse, like all living creatures, will not live forever. Ideally, your horse will remain healthy and happy into old age and will die a peaceful, natural death. However, it is wise to give some thought to other possibilities.

By thinking about what you would do in an emergency, or how you would act if your horse were to develop a painful or debilitating condition from which recovery was unlikely, you can be prepared for whatever happens. Be sure to share your thoughts and wishes on this issue with others, especially those who may be caring for your horse in your absence, such as your barn manager or neighbor, and your veterinarian. Doing so may spare your horse needless suffering if a severe illness or injury were to occur when you could not be contacted.

Dr. Darin Peterson, DVM, was born and raised on a horse and cattle ranch in Rosholt, S.D., and received his B.S. in Animal Science from SDSU. He concentrates most of his work time with large animals. He can be reached at 701-347-5496 or