Euthanasia: When It's Time to Say Goodbye

The decision to end your horse's life with euthanasia is one of the hardest you'll ever make. Let us help you through this troubling time.
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People always ask me how I do it. "Isn't that the hardest part of your job?" they wonder. Sure, it's hard. And sad. But honestly, when I euthanize a horse I often feel like I'm doing a great kindness especially when I know that it's a beloved horse whose owner has agonized for days, months, or even years about making the decision to end that horse's life. It's a choice that doesn't come easily.

[READ ABOUT: Slow Equine Medicine]

Illustration by Apryl Stott

Illustration by Apryl Stott

In this article, I'm going to help you through the process of ending your horse's life with veterinary-assisted chemical euthanasia, beginning with a hard look at the scenarios you're likely to face that would cause you to consider that decision. I'll help you decide when it's the right time, and will outline the planning steps you'll need to take. Finally, I'll explain the euthanasia process, step by step. Although it's never easy to undergo, if you understand the steps, it'll be less traumatic for you than learning about it as it's actually happening to your horse.

Making the Decision

These are the three most common scenarios you'll face that might result in a euthanasia decision: sudden severe illness or injury, slow decline in condition that causes quality of life to suffer, or temperament problems that cause a horse to become dangerous.

Scenario #1: Sudden severe illness or injury.

Picture this. The owner of your horse's boarding stable calls in a panic. Your horse has been kicked in the pasture and his leg is broken. You race to the barn and arrive at the same time as your vet, who tells you that the large bone in his upper leg is fractured. Even worse, it's penetrated the skin, making it a very severe and likely untreatable injury. Your horse is in incredible pain, and you must make a decision: Do you want him humanely euthanized?

In this situation, there's only one decision you can make, and it has to happen soon so your horse won't suffer. While euthanasia-as-the-only-choice can be the most stressful of all scenarios in the short term, in many ways it's the easiest because you really have no other choice.

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Scenario #2: Slow, steady decline.

Your 30-year-old mare has been a part of your family for years. Recently she's lost a lot of weight and looks stiff and sore walking around the pasture. Your vet has done an exam and run some lab work; everything looks fine, and your mare's just old. You can't help wondering if it will soon be time to say goodbye.

This situation can be agonizing, keeping you wondering for months or even years about your horse's quality of life. Here's what I believe: If you're wondering, it probably isn't time. Most horse owners in this situation will have some event that occurs to make the decision clear. The beloved old-timer can no longer get up after lying down to sleep or roll, lameness becomes so severe that he or she can't move around the pasture, or sudden illness strikes and causes a sudden change. I usually tell people "you'll know," and they do.

Scenario #3: Dangerous.

You've rescued a horse, only to discover that he's extremely unpredictable?in fact, downright scary. You can't turn your back on him for a minute or he'll bite you with ears pinned flat against his head. If you don't pay attention every minute, he'll spin and kick. He almost killed your vet when she came to do a simple exam, and you can't imagine how you'll ever provide even the most basic care.

The hardest decision you'll ever make is to end the life of a horse because of temperament. You'll be judged by others who don't understand, and you may find yourself embroiled in a political controversy at your barn. However, if you truly believe your horse is dangerous to you or others?and you've taken the right steps to try to solve your problems?euthanasia may really be justified.

Before coming to this decision, it's important to make sure there are no training options that could help you overcome the behavioral issues you're experiencing. Consult with a qualified trainer who's experienced with problem horses, and consider putting your horse in training with this person for a period of time for an accurate evaluation. Your veterinarian can also help you assess your situation?and may have suggestions for an alternative to euthanasia, such as donation to a veterinary school or other research program.

If you do reach the point where euthanasia seems to be your only choice, make your decision with the support of your trainer and veterinarian, and try not to listen to opinions of others.

[READ: Resources When Your Horse Dies]

The Planning Process

Once you've made the decision to euthanize, there are planning steps you must take. Where and when? Should you be there? And what do you do with your horse's remains? Most of these questions can be answered with a single call to your veterinarian.

Owners often wonder whether they should be present during the euthanasia process. Some prefer to have their veterinarian perform the euthanasia and arrange for handling of the remains while they stay far, far away. Others want to be there for the last minutes of their horse's life. It's really a personal choice.

When an owner mulls this decision, I always offer a warning that a horse's euthanasia doesn't always go as easily as euthanasia of a dog or cat, simply because of the animal's large size. Realize that your horse will most likely be standing when the medication is administered, and it can be hard to watch him fall to the ground.

Once the euthanasia has been completed, you'll need to have plans in place for handling his or her remains. Three basic options are available: rendering, burial, or cremation.

Rendering

This is the most popular, and often most practical option. You simply need to call a rendering company that will send a truck to haul your horse's body away to the rendering plant, where it will be used for making products such as animal feed additives, soap, lubricants, and glue. When possible, it's best to schedule the rendering truck to arrive an hour or two following your appointment with your veterinarian. This way, the body can be removed before it has a chance to bloat and begin to decompose.

Cost for rendering ranges between $100 and $300, depending on your location; distance from the rendering plant; and whether your request comes as an emergency, with no ability to plan ahead.

Burial

If you own land, you may want to have your beloved horse buried on your property. To do so, you'll need to find out the laws for your area. Some counties prohibit burial, and if they allow it, they often have strict requirements about the placement, depth, and size of the hole, and how the body should be handled.

If you think you might want to bury your horse on your property "someday," it's best to find out these answers well ahead of time, so you'll know whether it's even possible. If you find you can't bury your horse on your own property, there are rare horse cemeteries that offer burial services. Ask your vet whether this is available in your area.

Cost of burial will depend on availability of the equipment needed to dig the hole. If you don't have access to one of your own, a hired backhoe with operator can usually do the job for between $300 and $600.

Cremation

It's becoming more popular these days to have your horse cremated, and equine cremation services are becoming more widely available. With a simple phone call, you can arrange to have your horse's body picked up and cremated. The remains can be returned to you if you request a private cremation, or will be disposed of by the crematory if you request general or "communal" cremation.

Cost for cremation is usually calculated by the pound, with a minimum charge of around $500. Expect to pay between $1,000 and $1,500 for cremation of a typically sized adult horse.

The Euthanasia Event

With your decision made and plans in place, it's time for the actual euthanasia to take place. If you decide not to be present, your vet will usually arrive with a technician or assistant to help hold your horse. If you want to hold your horse while the medications are administered, your vet will give you careful instructions about what to do and what to expect. It's very important that you pay close attention so that you'll stay safe. Keep in mind that a 1,000-pound animal falling to the ground can be dangerous and unpredictable.

If your horse is nervous or agitated, your vet may decide to administer a sedative prior to the euthanasia solution. This can help calm not only your horse, but is also likely to make you feel more relaxed during such a stressful time. The vet will then administer the euthanasia solution, most commonly a medication called Sodium Pentobarbital. A fairly large volume of the solution (between 80cc and 120cc) is given as rapidly as possible in a vein.

If you watch your horse carefully after the injection has been completed, you'll see his eyes glaze over, usually within 10 to 20 seconds. I always want owners to know that from the time you recognize that look, your horse no longer knows what's happening. From that point forward, it's only hard on you.

Your horse will stand for several seconds, begin to sway, and then will drop to the ground. In an ideal situation, he'll go down softly, although in reality he may hit the ground hard?a disturbing thing to watch when you are already upset. Again, remember that your horse doesn't know what's happening?it's only hard on you.

Finally, because of a horse's large size, it may take a while for his heart to stop beating. Your vet will listen to his heart, and may check his corneal reflex by lightly touching the surface of his eye to determine when he's really gone. Be aware that even after his heart is no longer beating, your horse will make some reflex movements that can be hard to watch if you're not prepared. He may suddenly take a deep breath, move a leg, or make a loud snorting sound. If you want to be with him at the end, be ready for these things to happen so they won't upset you.

It's never easy to make the decision to end a beloved horse's life, and it's never easy for your veterinarian to administer that final injection. Just remember that when the time does come, euthanasia?a merciful death?will be one of the kindest things you can do for your horse.

Memories

When you are in the middle of a difficult euthanasia decision, it's easy to forget about some of the simple things that can help create lifelong memories of your equine friend. Consider some of the following suggestions.

Lock of hair: In our practice, we always cut a handful of tail hairs from every horse we euthanize. We wash and condition the locks, and braid them with colorful ribbons to send to our client as a memento. You can even have your horse's hair braided into fancy bracelets or fired into pottery pieces.

Shoe: If your horse is wearing shoes at the time he's euthanized, ask your vet to pull one for you to keep.

Name plates from halter/bridle: If your horse is wearing a halter with a nameplate at the time of euthanasia, and you wish to keep it, be sure to remove it before the rendering truck arrives. Nameplates from halters or bridles are wonderful ways to remember your companion.

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