Saying Goodbye: a discussion about euthanasia

Euthanasia is a term that comes from the Greek language and translated into English means “good death.”  The most common method of euthanasia is via a lethal injection of a barbituate drug, but other methods may also produce a “good death.”  There are many reasons for an owner to choose euthanasia and the decision to euthanize a horse is often a difficult and deeply personal for the owner.

The most common reasons for a planned euthanasia are old age and a decline in quality of life.  Whether due to a chronic disease (such as arthritis or Cushing’s disease) that has become too difficult or costly to manage, or the horse is doing poorly and there is worry about how it will do over another winter, the owner often has the best judgment when it comes to their horse’s quality of life.  However, sometimes changes in a horse can be subtle, and partnering with your veterinarian is invaluable in assessing an aging horse’s quality of life.  A veterinarian may also have additional ideas for management that allow your horse to be comfortable for longer.  Euthanasia does not always apply to aged horses alone; chronic and costly diseases can affect younger horses as well as older ones.  Laminitis is a prime example of one such disease that frequently becomes a reason for euthanasia when the pain and discomfort become unmanageable.

Another common reason for euthanasia is when a veterinary emergency occurs that is either not treatable, or very costly to treat, such as a severe colic or fracture of a long bone.  While in some cases euthanasia is the only option, due to the severity of the problem, in other cases, the owner must decide between pursuing treatment or electing humane euthania.  This decision is typically based on the cost of treatment, prognosis (or chance of a favourable outcome), and value of the horse.  As a horse owner, planning ahead for an emergency can save agonizing over a decision when an emergency is occurring.  This is often a very emotional time and the ability to think clearly can be affected.  Some factors to consider include formulating a budget for how much money you can afford to spend treating an emergency (and then setting aside money in an emergency fund or purchasing insurance) and knowing which problems you would be willing to treat.  If you have more than one horse, consider what you would treat in each horse (for example, colic surgery may be an option for a younger horse, but not for an older retiree).  Having this plan ahead of time can greatly reduce stress over treatment decisions at the time of an emergency. 

Each veterinarian has their own protocol they follow when euthanizing an animal.  In general, the horse is typically heavily sedated in order to decrease stimulation from the environment and allow the procedure to go smoothly.  Once the horse is sedate, the euthanasia solution is administered.  The administration of the euthanasia solution causes the horse to become unconscious and within a few moments, they will become recumbent (lay down).  Because the horse is unconscious, they are unaware of what is happening and do not feel any emotional or physical pain.  Due to the size of horses, this can be very dramatic and unsafe for owners who have decided to stay for the euthanasia of their horse.  We often ask owners to stand back while the euthanasia solution is administered, until the horse is down on the ground.  Once the horse is down, their heart stops beating and their brain function will shut down.  The time for this to occur is variable, but often takes only a few minutes once the horse is down.  As the brain function ceases, the horse may take a few breaths, have some muscle twitching, or have some involuntary movement of the legs.  As the horse is either unconscious or already passed it is unaware of these processes.  However, these effects can be very alarming for the owner if they have elected to stay for the euthanasia.  The veterinarian will then listen to the horse’s heart to confirm that it has stopped and often touch the eye to confirm a lack of blink reflex to ensure the horse has passed away. 

There are alternative acceptable methods of euthanasia.  These are acceptable in special circumstances or when performed by a well-trained person and can produce just as peaceful of death as the administration of a barbituate drug.

Electing to remain present during the euthanasia process is another deeply personal decision.  As the owner, this needs to be your decision.  Due to the size of horses, the transition from standing to recumbency can sometimes be very dramatic.  This is especially true if the horse has a systemic illness or disorder that affects their circulation.  Some individuals find the process upsetting, and it may not be the last memory you wish to have of your horse.  Attending your horse’s euthanasia is optional and is often something that is discussed at the time.   

Unfortunately, despite a veterinarian’s best efforts, a euthanasia does not always go as smoothly as planned.  Many horse owners have heard horror stories about a euthanasia ‘gone wrong.’  Some stories are simply due to the owner not being prepared for a large animal euthanasia; they perhaps were not aware of how dramatic it can be to see a large animal fall.  Other times, it can be difficult to find the jugular vein making it more difficult for the veterinarian to administer the drugs.  This is often the case when the horse has an underlying disease process that has resulted in severe dehydration or compromised circulation, or a horse that has been down for a prolonged period of time.  These factors make the euthanasia more difficult for the veterinarian and the procedure may not go as smooth as one would like.  Occasionally more of the euthanasia solution needs to be administered once the animal is down.  Fortunately, in these instances the horse is already unconscious and unaware of what is happening, but in the event of a rough euthanasia it can be very troubling to the owner if they have decided to attend.  Despite a veterinarian’s best intentions, these situations are often unpredictable and unavoidable.

For an owner who would really like to say goodbye to their horse when it is lying down and peacefully sleeping, an additional anesthetic drug can be administered to the horse between the sedative and euthanasia solution.  This anesthetic drug allows the horse to lie down more quietly and essentially be asleep for the owner to say goodbye before the euthanasia solution is administered.  This is not usually a routine part of euthanasia due to the increased cost and time that it takes but it is an option if the owner wishes to have more time with their horse before the final goodbye.  This option can be discussed further with the veterinarian if desired.

Once euthanasia has been performed, another important consideration is disposal of the remains.  Animals that have been euthanized via a lethal IV injection pose a risk to scavengers and farm dogs/cats if they ingest any parts of the remains.  Appropriate disposal is mandatory.  Options that are available in our practice area include on farm burial (if this is permitted on the owners’ property), cremation, pick up by the Alberta Processors (who take the remains for rendering), or pick up services for burial at the landfill.  The owner has the option of getting the horse’s ashes back if desired.  If you plan to bury on farm it is important to know the bylaws surrounding burial on private property within your district.  Being aware of local bylaws and planning ahead of time for disposal will make the process much easier should an emergency euthanasia occur.

Cost is an often overlooked consideration of euthanasia.  Cost varies between horses for euthanasia as different horses require different amounts of drugs.  In general the charges include a professional fee for the euthanasia, the cost of drugs (sedative and euthanasia solution), other supplies used (for example if a catheter was placed), and a cost for pick up and disposal or cremation if the horse is not to be buried on-farm.  Costs will vary between veterinary clinics so call your veterinary clinic if you would like more information on their pricing.

Photo Credit: Dr. Cheryl Malin

Photo Credit: Dr. Cheryl Malin

Once your horse has crossed the rainbow bridge, they are still not forgotten.  Owners have varying degrees of emotional attachments to their pets.  The passing of one particular horse may cause much more grief than the passing of other horses.  Many owners choose to save some mane and tail in order to have a keepsake of their horse - there are businesses that will take horse hair and turn it into a memorable keepsake such as a bracelet or key chain.  For owners with a strong burden of grief from losing a beloved pet, there are specially trained social workers that can assist in working through that grief. 

The decision to euthanize is typically based on a declining quality of life, but it is also all too often prompted by an emergency situation.  In either circumstance, the owner has to make the deeply personal decision to euthanize.  Each situation is unique and euthanasia should not be taken lightly.  Working with your veterinarian and having a plan ahead of time will best help you as the owner be prepared for the euthanasia of a beloved horse.