Euthanasia of a horse

In our latest veterinary feature from Sussex Equine Hospital, vet Sarah Davidson MRCVS writes about euthanasia of a horse.

Sarah Davidson MRCVS, Veterinary Associate at Sussex Equine Hospital

Euthanasia, a topic above any other that instills fear into many a horse owner, is also referred to as a horse or pet being ‘put to sleep’ or ‘put down’.

The word ‘euthanasia’ itself is derived from Greek and means ‘a good death’ but, in the opinion of most vets, it is a gift that means we can alleviate the suffering before it gets too much, take away that heartache of watching an animal’s quality of life diminish and minimise the amount of pain experienced.

It is, however, something that all equine or pet owners will have to deal with at some point and, while it’s not possible to fully prepare for the pain resulting from the loss of a much-loved animal, giving it due consideration in advance can make a big difference to how you feel if it happens to you.

This article is largely referring to the euthanasia of horses, but can be transferred in many places to any animal. The need for a horse to be euthanased falls into two broad categories:

1) In an emergency situation, for example, a bad colic episode or a catastrophic fracture where the prognosis for survival is grave and/or, despite treatment, pain cannot be alleviated.

2) The horse is struggling getting by day to day. Maybe he/she cannot stand easily after rolling or is losing weight despite good feeding (a common problem in older horses). This can be more difficult as owners often find it hard to pick a day when the balance of quality of life tips from good to poor. For most, it comes down to a gut feeling
It’s a difficult subject to read about and, indeed, some may not be able to, stopping at the first paragraph above, but educating oneself with the answers to the following questions will help to prepare you, if you find yourself in this situation:• How will euthanasia be performed?

A huntsman, what is sometimes called a ‘knackerman’ or a vet can use a gun, but they must have a licence. However, finding a suitable place to use a gun can be tricky as there are many unpredictable factors.

The muzzle of the gun is simply placed on the horse’s forehead and a bullet fired into the brain. Death is instantaneous and the horse will fall to the ground. Some bleeding can be expected from the bullet hole and the nostrils and then twitching of the limbs may be seen. These are distressing, but entirely normal, reflexes.

The most common method of euthanasing a horse, however, is lethal injection, and only a vet can perform one. Due to the nature of the drug used in lethal injections, the horse’s body must then be cremated. It will be administered a sedative to calm it, followed by a lethal overdose of anaesthetic.

Most horses remain standing for up to a minute and take a few deep breaths, but as they fall, they will experience a loss of consciousness and, therefore, know nothing about it. Once down, the heart will stop beating. Again, the limbs will twitch and a few more deep breaths may be seen.

• Where will your horse be put to sleep?                                                                            If it is an emergency situation, this is a factor that is less easily controlled but, generally speaking, good road access is essential, a soft, straw-filled or cushioned landing and a little bit of space is preferable. Familiar surroundings are also best as the horse is likely to remain more relaxed. If it’s the case that one of a pair of bonded horses has to be euthanased by lethal injection, there is evidence that a short period where the companion can approach and register that their friend is dead can minimise distress to the horse left behind.

• When will your horse be put to sleep?
In an emergency situation, when your horse will be put to sleep is unfortunately a decision taken out of your hands. However, if it is an elective euthanasia, there are lots of things to take into consideration. If it’s at a livery yard, when is it quietest? If at home, do you want family to be present or not? Will you need a few days away from work to come to terms with it: for example, a Friday before a weekend? Will you need a friend to offer support and, if so, when are they available? Will there be any family members or friends who would like to say goodbye? Will you want to spend one-on-one time with your horse beforehand. All things to consider carefully, so if that day ever occurs, you won’t have to agonise or make rushed choices.

• What would you like to happen afterwards?
Most owners will have their horse cremated but, whether you would like your horse’s ashes back (unfortunately at extra cost) is important. Burial is also possible, as is the donation of the body to the hunt, after going through much regulation and discussion with DEFRA and also provided it has not been lethally injected.

• Do you want to be present?
This is a completely personal decision and there is no right or wrong answer. You should discuss with friends and family, your vet or the yard owner if you are unsure. Horses are large animals and, to be brutal, rarely fall to the ground gracefully, so it’s ok to make yourself scarce if you do not wish for this to be your last memory of them. Nevertheless, if you feel brave enough to stand with them while the vet prepares everything, do so. It may be difficult, but you are unlikely regret it.

• Do you want anything to remember them by?
Owner’s will often choose to keep a shoe, a lock of hair from mane or tail or something else that they will remember their horse by. There are many companies around now who make horse hair into jewellery which can prove to be a lasting memento.

• Is your horse insured?
Depending on what level of insurance cover you have, you may be eligible for a pay-out. However, it is often the case that certain criteria have to be met. If putting your horse to sleep is planned, it is worth a phone call to ensure you have everything covered.

This list is comprehensive, but my no means exhaustive. Each individual case will carry different challenges. The most important things to note are that you must never leave a question unasked. It may feel far too difficult to put the words together at the end, but asking questions is a great way to ensure closure. It is such an emotionally sad time, which unfortunately most of us will experience at some point but, remember that no one is there to judge. It’s perfectly natural to be extremely upset.

One very important point to end on is that if you are struggling following the death of your horse, do reach out and ask for support. Your vet can be a source of comfort, but if you are really struggling, try The British Horse Society’s friendsattheend@bhs.org.uk.

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