Horse Side Vet Guide ®

Equine Health Resource

Make a Decision about Euthanasia

The decision to euthanize a horse is often a very difficult one for horse owners. Vets have taken an oath to protect animals from suffering and be their advocate, and yet the legal owner of a horse is responsible for making this important decision. Vets may make suggestions, but ultimately you must decide.

Horses are euthanized in several ways. Most commonly, a vet injects an anesthetic (barbituate) overdose that stops the heart and brain. After injection, horses usually fall to the ground within 30-60 seconds. At this point, they are not aware. The heart usually stops quickly thereafter. Eye reflexes may persist for 30 seconds to several minutes. Horses euthanized this way may gasp or spasm several times before being quiet. Rarely, horses paddle and convulse. It is important to know that they are not aware and are not feeling pain. These are reflexes. In some cases, horses may fall hard or awkwardly. While this is hard to watch, it is important to remember that in most cases, the horse is already unconscious.

Horses are unique also, because of their size. Managing a dead horse requires heavy equipment and usually involves multiple people. Laws on disposal of carcasses differ from region to region and must be followed. There are several options for disposal of the carcass including burial at residence, farms, or pet cemeteries. In some regions, horses carcasses may be taken to landfills. Some locations have access to rendering plants and some businesses offer cremation services. As in the human funeral business, the cost of this service is to some degree dependent on the degree of personalization of the memorial and remains. In my years in practice, I have had many horse owners request hair from the horse’s mane and tail as a remembrance.

There are a variety of memorial foundations that vets contribute to in the name of particular horses. In most cases, this money funds research in equine health. The relationships we have with our horses are highly personal. The grieving process is therefore unique for each of us.

Procedure

Consider the following when deciding whether to euthanize your horse:

Diagnosis & Treatment Options. Talk to your vet about the nature of the injury or illness as well all treatment options available. Ensure that you fully understand the disease process and what can be done to lessen or fully resolve the problem, and why euthanasia is being considered.

Prognosis & Future Quality of Life. Talk to your vet about your horse's prognosis, associated with all treatment options available. What will your horse's quality of life be like should you proceed with treatment? What are the chances they will be able to return to work or performance?

Pain & Pain Management. Talk to your vet about the level of pain that your horse is currently experiencing and may experience in the future, as well as all options for pain management.

Finances & Insurance. You need to be honest with yourself and your vet regarding your financial ability to continue treatment or choose surgery. Likewise, if your horse is insured you should contact the insurance company before making this decision.

Tips for safety & Success

Depending on the circumstances, it may be possible for you to take a bit of time to make this decision. Talk to your close friends and, if appropriate, seek out a second opinion from another vet.

In my years in practice, I have had many horse owners request hair from the horse's mane and tail as a remembrance.

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP

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