Euthanasia

Euthanasia

By Helen Whitelegg on 29 November 2021

The need to say goodbye

 Alongside the pleasures and rewards of horse ownership there are inevitably some hard times, and none more so than having to say goodbye to a much-loved equine.

While euthanasia is not something we want to dwell on, it’s important to accept that it can become necessary at any time. Whether it has to be an urgent decision resulting from severe, inoperable colic, or the result of a chronic condition such as degenerative joint disease, our responsibility is to protect horses from suffering. This is a legal, as well as a moral obligation to animals in our care.

For more information on how to monitor quality of life and end of life care, read our Quality of Life blog.

 Planning ahead

 Having a euthanasia plan can make a big difference at a stressful time.  A horse may require emergency euthanasia at any point, leaving no opportunity to explore options. While it can be difficult to think about euthanasia when our horse is healthy, it will be time well spent if we brave the topic in advance and are familiar with what is involved and the decisions we may need to make.

 

Methods of euthanasia

 Horses can be put to sleep by injection or by bullet. Both are completely humane and cause no suffering to the horse when carried out by a qualified, experienced professional.

 Lethal injection must be administered by a vet. It is effectively an overdose of anaesthetic, causing the horse to quickly lose consciousness, before stopping the heart.

 A specific gun is used to euthanase large animals, which must be operated by a licensed, trained and experienced individual. This may be a vet, knackerman, slaughterer or someone working for a hunt. By placing the pistol in a precise position against the horse’s head, death is instantaneous.

 In both cases, the horse will collapse and there is often involuntary muscle movement after death. These can both be hard for an owner to witness, but are quite normal.

 How a horse is put to sleep is a personal choice, but there may be practical considerations to take into account, such as:

  • Is the horse needleshy?
  • Is the horse headshy?
  • Will the noise of a gun cause distress to other horses, animals or people close by?
  • Do you want to be standing with your horse when euthanasia is carried out?
  • How will injection limit options for disposal?

 Some owners want to be present during euthanasia, while others prefer not to be, it is a purely personal choice. It may be an easier decision to make if you are already aware of what euthanasia involves and know which method you would prefer for your horse.

 

Disposal

 Even small ponies are heavy animals and dealing with a body involves practical decisions. Again, having a plan in place will help you know who to contact and what to expect.

 

  • Cremation: usually the more expensive option, but popular with many owners. Part of the crematorium’s service will be to collect the body. Your vet or farrier may be able to recommend a crematorium in your area. Not all pet crematoria will take equines, and some may only be able to accept ponies, so be aware of where the nearest service provider is who would be suitable for you and your horse.
  • Burial: restricted by law and requires local authority permission. Burial will need to be at a specified depth and a safe distance from water courses. It can be bureaucratic and expensive, so worth investigating in advance if it is something you want to consider.
  • Fallen stock operators and hunt yards: likely to be the cheapest option. It is a personal choice, but not an option for horses that are signed out of the food chain or put down by injection.

 

Costs

 Euthanasia and disposal come at a cost and having a money put away can be invaluable when the time comes. Part of the value of looking into the practicalities of putting a horse to sleep in advance is knowing how much money we are likely to have to find when the time comes.

 Mortality insurance options are also available to help cover costs, but be aware of any exclusions for pre-existing conditions.

 

Companion care

 It is important to consider the impact of euthanasia on a horse’s companions. As innately social animals, horses can form strong bonds and may be noticeably affected by the absence of a close friend.

 If possible, it is worth trying to leave the deceased horse where companions can be turned out with it for a period. This gives individuals the chance to approach the body if they wish, which is known to reduce the risk of separation anxiety in companions.

 It may not be possible to leave the body with companions, or individuals may still show distress once the body is removed. It can take time for a horse to adjust to their loss, but there are ways we can support them:

  • Provide an equine neighbour if the horse would otherwise be alone. If time allows, think about introducing a new companion well ahead of euthanasia.
  • Stable mirrors can be a useful substitute for companionship, and could also be installed in a paddock. Monitor how the horse reacts to ensure it is beneficial.
  • Ensure the horse is eating and offer appetisers if need be.
  • Find where the horse is most relaxed and allow them to spend more time there. Avoid leaving a stressed horse galloping round for long periods as there is a risk of injury or colic.
  • Spend extra time with the horse, perhaps grooming sessions, walks in hand or carrying out field maintenance tasks while they are turned out.
  • Don’t ask too much of the horse in terms of ridden work or other activities which may be an additional source of stress.
  • Be alert to behaviour change like loss of appetite, or signs of a clinical issue such as colic.

 

Coping with grief

 In addition to supporting companion horses, it is important to allow ourselves time to grieve. Losing a horse can be devastating and have a profound emotional and physical impact on us. While making the decision to euthanase a horse is an essential responsibility for owners, it can also leave us with feelings of guilt.

 Research published in 2021[i] explored the impact equine euthanasia can have on owner, and identified the importance of shared decision-making in alleviating the sense of sole responsibility owners may find difficult. Vets can play a crucial role in end-of-life care and guiding owners to make decisions at the right time, alongside providing clinical expertise.

 Farriers can also provide support when a horse is affected by an issue such as arthritis or lameness that is resulting in quality of life concerns. Further support is available from equine charities such as Redwings, who also deal with end of life decisions for horses in their own care, meaning they can share personal as well as professional experience.

 When euthanasia is planned, arrange time and space for yourself within the process too. Grief can be complex and affect people in different ways, but never be afraid to acknowledge if you need support. In addition to our own friends and family, specialist support is also available through schemes such as Friends at the End and the Pet Bereavement Support Service.

 Euthanasia is one of the hardest aspects of owning an animal, but giving our horses the best possible care while they are with us, then knowing when and how to say goodbye, ensures every individual can enjoy a good life for the whole of their life.



[i] Clough HGR, Roshier AL, England GCW, Burford JH, Freeman SL. Qualitative study of the influence of horse-owner relationship during some key events within a horse’s lifetime. Vet Rec. 2021;e79. https://doi.org/10.1002/vetr.79

 

MM-16978

Comments

DVM MSC PHD MRCVS


Redwings’ Policy and Research Manager Helen first joined Redwings in 2001 and has worked in the charity’s horse care, welfare, communications and campaigns teams. Now Policy and Research Manager, Helen draws on first-hand experience of horse health and welfare issues to develop campaigns and carry out research projects that support owners with evidence-based information that can have a positive impact on equine lives.

This may also help

Buying Children's Ponies

Buying a pony is a huge undertaking and getting it wrong can cause massive headaches. Over the years I have bought many ponies an...

01 December 2021

Read More

Join the Community

Sign-up to our newsletter