Euthanasia for Horses: Sad, Hard Time for All

Saying Good-bye… what you should know, but don’t want to ask.

By Susan Konkle

Saying good-bye to a friend is never easy. Euthanasia isn’t a subject you want to think about, much less read about. Although the life expectancy of a horse is 25 or 30 years, your three-year-old could face life-threatening colic tomorrow, or Old Reliable could sustain a severe injury in a misstep on his last schooling fence.

As unpleasant as it may seem, having a plan will save both you and your horse unnecessary suffering if he has to be put down.

The decision will be all yours. Few veterinarians will tell you when your horse should be put down — that’s not their job. When your horse is very sick, badly injured or perhaps facing emergency surgery, your veterinarian is responsible for clearly communicating your horse’s condition, including statistics on the odds of it surviving or recovering, so that you can make an informed decision.

Most veterinarians seem to feel a horse should be put down if there is no chance of relieving its suffering, or if it has become a danger to itself or to the people around it. Under these circumstances, a veterinarian may offer euthanasia as an option, but the ultimate choice still rests with the owner.

Some veterinarians may refuse to put a horse down at the owner’s request. Many cases fall into that gray area, “loss of use.” A horse may not be sound enough to use, but can live comfortably turned out to pasture. Some owners do not want to bear this expense, so the veterinarian must often weigh the horse’s prospects for humane care and quality of life before refusing the owner’s request for euthanasia.

Not only can a veterinarian refuse to euthanize an unsound but otherwise healthy horse for ethical reasons, but he may also refuse to try to save a horse when he believes death is inevitable and treatment will only prolong suffering.

This can be difficult for a distraught owner to comprehend when faced with the prospect of losing a valued companion.

If your horse is insured, the insurance company makes it more complex. Read and understand the coverage you have on your horse.

Insurance companies usually want to know about a problem before euthanasia becomes an issue. You could save your horse hours of suffering if you are familiar with the terms of your policy before an emergency situation occurs.

Although you don’t have to wait if you can’t reach the company in an emergency, companies want to authorize anesthesia. In a serious situation, you may have to call them after the horse is in surgery. They will often authorize the surgeon to use his best judgment and report back the next business day.

However, you may be required to get approval from the company before you can put your horse down. Do everything to keep the insurers informed, because many will not pay if you “neglected duties of prior or timely notification.”

There are two best-case scenarios for putting a horse down. A horse undergoing surgery can be euthanized by barbiturate I.V. if it becomes obvious during the surgery that it has no hope for recovery.

Beyond that, the most common is an intravenous barbiturate overdose administered by a veterinarian. It is comforting to know that consciousness is eliminated as soon as the drug is given.

If your horse is in pain or badly injured, it may be dangerous or impossible to use an injection. A horse experiencing shock may lack the circulation necessary to distribute the drug to his brain or heart. For this reason, veterinarians may need a backup. A .22-caliber pistol is a good choice.

The gun should be placed perpendicular to the forehead in the center of an X formed by drawing a line between the horse’s right ear and left eye and left ear and right eye. If done correctly, death is instantaneous.

To make sure the horse is dead, the veterinarian will listen for a heartbeat and may check the eye for a reaction by touching it. Horses have a very sensitive corneal response. If there is any sensation, it will be felt in the eye.

If a horse needs to be put down during transport due to illness or a trailer accident, it’s best to call the state police. They can put you in touch with a local veterinarian, or in extreme emergencies can shoot the horse to end its suffering.

Most large competitions have a veterinarian on the grounds for emergencies, but some smaller ones do not. In the latter case, competition management can put you in touch with a veterinarian, and if he must euthanize the horse, he can give you the best advice on removing the body for burial or disposal.

You must decide about being present when your horse is put down. Your veterinarian will probably advise against it, with good reason. Anytime, but particularly in stressful situations, euthanasia of such a large animal may not go as planned. Complications may be dangerous or unattractive. Unless you accept that fact, don’t be there.

After you recover from the shock and sadness of losing a friend, you still have to deal with the body of your dead horse.

If your horse dies or is euthanized at an equine hospital, it will probably provide this service for a fee. Otherwise, you will have to make the arrangements.

Delay in disposal is an unpleasant and disheartening situation. Once rigor mortis sets in–about two hours after death–it will be difficult to remove your horse from his stall, and a much deeper and wider hole will be needed to bury him. It takes about a day for rigor mortis to wear off, and, unfortunately, it might also take that long to find someone with a backhoe if you haven’t done your homework in advance.

Talk to other owners in your area and learn the name and number of a reliable backhoe operator. If you board your horse, the manager at your barn might be able to offer you a plan.

There may be ordinances that prohibit burial of large animals, so check with the local county administration, and be prepared to haul your horse to another locality.

Removal services may also be available. If you know in advance–this doesn’t work in emergency situations, of course–have a spot picked out and the hole ready before your vet arrives. Be sure to choose a location that doesn’t drain toward a well or water supply. If other horses are pastured on a burial site, it is safe as long as you are certain the earth is packed hard. If your horse has died from a communicable disease, it is best to bury him in another location or dispose of him in a manner approved by your veterinarian.

If burial isn’t an option, there are rendering services in some areas that will pick up the carcass, sometimes free of charge. County landfills may also accept animal remains, but you’ll have to arrange to get them there. Equine veterinarians are a good source of information as to what’s available in your area.

The service is generally more readily available for small animals, but it is possible to have your horse cremated rather than buried or hauled away.

For example, Doc’s Pet Cremation in Rocky Mount, Va., will accept horses and other large animals. Dr. R.E. Flint recognized a need and offers cremation services to large-animal owners as part of his veterinary practice.

Flint recommends owners contact their veterinarian when a horse must be put down. If the owner wants the horse cremated, the veterinarian can euthanize the horse in the trailer, and the animal can be taken to the cremation site.

At the owner’s request, once cremation is complete the ashes are placed in a decorative container and returned by mail. The ashes produced by cremation of the average horse weigh 40 to 45 pounds. Along with the ashes, the owner receives a certificate stating that the ashes received are those of the horse.

Cremation costs about $300, or about the same as the cost of backhoe service for burial.

Source: Pet Care Tips

*NOTE: Always check local regulations and options. For information in Alberta you can download this booklet: Humane Handling Guidelines for Horses.