Euthanasia – Death with Dignity
by Shanna Nelson DVM
It is never a pleasant topic to discuss, but eventually all horses will grow old and debilitated, will be faced with severe illness or injury, or will suffer a catastrophic accident. Although we often hope they will pass away quietly in their sleep, the truth is that often the human caregivers are faced with the difficult task of deciding when a horse’s quality of life has deteriorated to the point that ending it is a humane option.
At Fox Creek Veterinary Hospital, we recognize the value of the human-animal bond, and we acknowledge the importance your equine companion has in your life. We are willing to consult with you regarding any questions you may have about your horse’s quality of life, and we can assist in the decision-making process by making you aware of all available options.
When the time comes, we strive to make the process as stress-free for you and your horse as possible. The horse is sedated to help keep him or her calm and to assure things proceed smoothly. Often we will place a temporary catheter in the vein, but this varies depending on the individual circumstances. The horse is given an overdose of a barbiturate, which induces general anesthesia (cessation of brain activity) and stops the heart. The horse loses consciousness quickly and no longer feels anything. It is noteworthy that it may take some time for reflexes to disappear, and the horse may continue to take large breaths or have a weak heartbeat for several minutes after injection. This can be disconcerting for onlookers, but it is important to understand that these are not conscious actions, and the animal is already brain dead at this point. Some owners elect to be present for the euthanasia process, but others find it too emotional and upsetting. The choice is up to you, and there is no right or wrong answer.
If you would like to save a lock of your horse’s mane, or if you want to keep the last set of shoes, we can discretely remove these for you. These can be sentimental keepsakes in the days to come. There are companies and individuals offering custom products, such as jewelry and horsehair pottery, out of mane and tail hair, and some owners appreciate the tangible evidence of fond memories that these items bring.
The proper disposal of equine remains poses some difficulties, since horses are such large animals. If you have access to appropriate equipment and if local regulations allow, you can bury the horse on your property. It is important to bury the body deep and far away from any water source, as the drugs used for euthanasia are toxic to other animals. Currently, rendering companies in the St. Louis area will not accept horses, which eliminates this option. Off-site burial and cremation are the other choices; we can contact the relevant companies on your behalf if you elect one of these options.
It is worth discussing euthanasia with your veterinarian and family before the time comes, when there is no crisis and emotions are calmer, so that you are more prepared for the event when the unfortunate does happen. We are always ready to provide compassionate, dignified care to your equine companion.