Being Prepared for Equine Euthanasia

We enjoy a unique relationship with a remarkable large animal. It’s a partnership and a companionship based on heartfelt emotion. However, most of us choose not to dwell on how the relationship with our beloved horses might come to an end.

Owners, trainers, and caregivers have a wide variety of experiences and perspectives when it comes to end of life choices. Unlike in human medicine, if our patients suffer from a terminal illness, catastrophic injury, or an irreversible poor quality of life, we have the duty to act with mercy and provide them with a pain-free death. Euthanasia is a procedure that veterinarians perform with great care. It involves humility, reverence for life, and the utmost compassion for all involved. Heavy emotion typically saturates these events. Those of us who do it well take pride in the ability to deliver this valuable service. 

If you own or care for a horse, I encourage you to give some thought to euthanasia during a time when there is no sense of urgency. This will better prepare you for an emergency ­circumstance—when indecisiveness can prolong ­suffering—and will better position you to make an educated elective decision. These are the most pressing factors to take into account during an emergency:

  • What is the diagnosis?
  • What is the short-term prognosis?
  • What is the long-term prognosis?
  • Is the horse suffering?
  • Do you have the resources to fix this problem?

If you are caring for a horse that is in declining health, you have the advantage of time. Creating a plan for how to proceed with euthanasia will likely not make the loss any less painful. However, you will not have the shock of a sudden unexpected loss. You can make arrangements for people to say goodbye or for your horse to have one last special ­experience. For example, the owner of a horse that’s been on a ­restricted diet might turn him out to graze on lush green pasture.

Planning euthanasia often includes:

  • Selecting a date or time of year;
  • Selecting a location for the procedure;
  • Making arrangements for a surviving pasture- or barnmate to have a ­companion;
  • Selecting and preparing a burial site; and/or
  • Making arrangements for removing the body.

Your veterinarian is well-equipped to help you plan ahead, perform the procedure, and coordinate plans for your horse’s remains.

Lack of information can contribute to anxiety or distress. Therefore, it helps to know what to expect during the procedure. By far, the most common acceptable method veterinarians use to perform euthanasia is intravenous administration of a barbiturate overdose. This method immediately induces deep anesthesia, including central nervous system ­depression that quickly leads to respiratory and cardiac arrest. If you have undergone anesthesia, you might recall counting backward from 10 as instructed by your anesthesiologist during induction, without making it to five before losing consciousness. With euthanasia, the barbiturate dose far exceeds that used for routine anesthesia to ensure certain death.

If the horse is already lying down for this procedure, it is far less dramatic. It is more often the case that the horse is standing and the sudden loss of consciousness will cause him to fall. Even under ideal circumstances, the fall can be shocking. Therefore, choosing a discreet location with plenty of space is important for the safety of all people involved and for access to the body for removal. 

Once the horse is down, there might be a brief period of leg movement. The horse almost always takes a few last breaths either within seconds or up to a few minutes after passing. These agonal breaths occur due to residual neuromuscular activity in a heaving-type manner and can be alarming if you don’t expect them. To confirm death, most practitioners will listen to the heart with a stethoscope to determine that it has stopped beating. We will also check for the absence of a corneal reflex, which is involuntary eyelid closure due to sensation on the cornea.

There are unique options for memorializing your horse if you have the presence of mind to think ahead. For instance, many businesses make custom bracelets, picture frames, fly whisks, etc. with braided tail hair. Cremation is also an option.

The last goodbye is never easy. The more knowledge you have about the process, the better you can plan for and cope with it.