Owning a horse is an enjoyable and rewarding experience.  Unfortunately, owning a horse also often includes the difficult experience of the end of life process, including euthanasia.  While there is no way to make the end of life experience a happy and stress-free experience, having some prior knowledge can certainly improve the process.  Some things to consider learning about are how to make the decision to euthanize your horse, what to do with the horse’s body after euthanasia, and how the euthanasia process typically is performed.

The decision to have your horse euthanized is a difficult one and the reasons that lead to that decision are different in every situation.  It is important to remember that the origin of the word euthanasia is “a beautiful death.”  This implies that euthanasia should preferably be performed at a time before pain and suffering occurs, or becomes too severe.  The idea is to make our best effort to avoid chronic pain and suffering.

Of course, every situation is different and in some cases the decision to euthanize will need to be made quickly in a situation involving severe acute pain from an acute disorder, such as an acute colic requiring surgery and surgery is not an option.  On the other hand, the decision may be made over a longer duration of time if the concern is chronic pain from a chronic issue.

Another thing to consider is whether or not the pain can be controlled or reduced using medication and other management, and whether or not there is a chance to resolve the problem causing the pain. If there is no hope to resolve the pain, then it would be unethical to prolong pain and discomfort, while if there is a chance for recovery, then it would be acceptable to allow for some pain as long as there is appropriate effort to reduce the pain, such as using analgesic medications.

Lastly, we need to remember that pain is not the only factor to consider in quality of life.  The scenarios mentioned above would still apply if we replace the symptom of “pain” with “nausea, weight loss, general feeling of sickness, or difficulty withstanding the elements.”  For example, in late fall, many older horses will have a thin body condition, with low fat stores.  This can greatly affect their welfare in withstanding the cold of winter, decreasing their quality of life.  In these situations, many owners will consider euthanasia for their horse before winter arrives.

All of the situations mentioned above can be difficult to navigate.  It is recommended to consult with your veterinarian and ask their opinion on the quality of life of your horse, and whether or not considering euthanasia would be a reasonable choice.

The most common way that euthanasia occurs in horses is by intravenous injection of a large overdose of an anesthetic drug, that will stop the heart and respiratory centers of the brain, causing death.  This process can occur in different ways depending on the veterinarian’s preference and what the owner is comfortable with.  The most typical scenario would involve sedating the horse and once the horse is comfortable and relaxed, the euthanasia injection (barbiturate) would be given, while the horse is standing and the horse will fall to the ground within 30 seconds to a minute.  An alternative method would be to anesthetize the horse with non-euthanasia medications, allow the horse to lay down under anesthesia, and then the euthanasia injection would be administered while the horse is under anesthesia.

An alternative to using a barbiturate euthanasia injection, is to anesthetize the horse using conventional anesthesia techniques, and once the horse is laying on the ground under anesthesia, a drug called Lidocaine is injected into the cerebral spinal fluid, which results in death.  This method is less commonly used, but is gaining in popularity, especially in areas where burial of animals euthanized with barbiturates is prohibited.

When you are present for a euthanasia, it is helpful to know a few things ahead of time that can happen during the process.  The first is that sometimes, a horse may gasp when it is euthanized.  This is called an agonal breath, and typically occurs after the horse has already passed away.  This is a natural reflex and it is important to realize that the horse is not in any distress if this occurs.  It is also important to realize that the eyes of the horse will not close after they have passed. Lastly, when a horse falls to the ground, either under anesthesia, or while being euthanized, the fall is not always graceful and it happens fast.

Once the euthanasia has occurred, disposal of the body must be considered.  The options for disposal are burial underground, admission to a landfill for burial, or cremation.

When considering burial of your horse, you must be able to have a hole dug that is several feet deep, which typically requires heavy equipment such as an excavator.  It is helpful to ask around the horse community to find a construction company with the heavy equipment necessary to dig such a hole.  It is also important to determine if it is legal to bury an animal in your area, so please check with your municipality’s zoning regulations and bylaws.

If you decide to admit your horse to a landfill, the main planning required will be to arrange transport of the body to the landfill.  Again, asking around the horse community will help you locate someone in your area that you could hire to transport the body.  This is typically the least costly method.

Lastly, there are pet crematoriums that will cremate your horse, and you can either arrange to have the ashes returned to you, or you could decide to not receive the ashes at all.  Often, the crematoriums will also arrange for transport of the body to the crematorium.  This option typically has the largest expense.  As an alternative, horse owners often will ask that the head, heart and hooves are the only parts of the body that are cremated.

Planning the method of disposal prior to euthanasia, if the situation permits, can greatly reduce the stress of the euthanasia process.

While the process of euthanizing your horse is always a sad experience, hopefully it can be made even a small amount better by prior planning and understanding of the elements involved.

Written by Dr. Mackenzie Marks
Learn more about Dr. Mackenzie Marks here.