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Euthanasia in Horses

By: Dr. Philip Johnson

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Euthanasia literally means an "easy and painless death." You may know it as "putting a pet to sleep" or "putting an animal down." The word arises from thanatos, Greek for death, and is embellished to reflect a "state of death." This implies an ancient concept that man has 'control' over the 'state' of life versus death in animals.

This deliberate act of ending life is undoubtedly a difficult issue. Pet owners who must make this decision often feel anxiety or even guilt, but when a pet is very ill with little hope of recovery, the question of "When is it time?" becomes most important.

It's a common situation: Many horses suffer with chronic diseases such as cancer that can often be managed in such a way that life is prolonged, although the quality of life is greatly diminished. For most horse owners this issue greatly influences the decision concerning euthanasia. Certainly, quality of life is a personal judgment; you know your horse better than anyone else. And while your veterinarian can guide you with objective information about diseases, and even provide a personal perspective of a disease condition, the final decision about euthanasia rests with you.

Indeed, as an owner, you have that control to request euthanasia. It is one of the most difficult decisions in life. You need to be mentally prepared, because the decision needs to be focused on the welfare of the animal, and should be performed humanely. Although you never know the hurt of losing your horse until it comes, you must be prepared to set aside your emotions if necessary, at least for the moment, to protect your horse from needless suffering.

Reasons Why Horses are Euthanized

Euthanasia of horses is performed for all kinds of reasons:

  • Illness resulting in incurable suffering
  • Illness with dependency on medications
  • Loss of use
  • Old age problems
  • Danger to himself, another animal, or the rider

    What one person considers to be a good reason to euthanize might be unacceptable to others. What veterinarians want to do is to help you make the decision about the best time for euthanasia, with consideration of your emotional state, and without making the decision for you. If you are having a difficult time making the decision, you need to discuss this issue with your veterinarian. You might also take advantage of a pet loss hot-line, like the one at Tufts University, that has stand-by personnel to talk to you.

    There are some general guidelines that can be followed that veterinarians, who are experts in pain assessment and management, have devised to avoid prolongation of suffering in their patients. In the end, the request for euthanasia is in your hands, but knowledge of the following is crucial to making that decision.

    Illness and Illness with Dependency on Medications:

    As a general guide, there a certain signs regardless of the cause that should alert you to the possibility that your horse will enter a phase of incurable suffering, and euthanasia should be considered:

  • Prolonged loss of appetite, as in liver disease or cancer

  • Progressive weight loss with little or no response to additional food, as in kidney failure or intestinal disease

  • Inability to get up without assistance, as in neurologic disease or arthritis

  • Presence of pain a good deal of the time, as in fractures, eye pain (uveitis) or pain from arthritis, even after treatment with pain-killers

  • Frequent or untreatable side-effects from pain medication as with bute toxicity

  • Broken down tendons, as in suspensory or flexor tendon laxity with pain and immobility

  • Founder (laminitis), which causes persistent pain or immobility

  • Untreatable cancers that are not very small or localized

  • Frequent bouts of colic that cause severe pain or the need to rescue the horse on an emergency basis

  • Breathing problems that do not respond to medication

  • Neurologic disease that puts the horse at risk for more serious injury

  • An inability to eat that is incurable (esophageal stricture or tumor)

  • Combinations of problems

    You must occasionally weigh the value of the horse against the cost of illness treatments, the likely outcome of treatment, and the extent to which the horse will likely suffer during that treatment. In no time at all, treatment for founder, kidney failure, heart failure, or neurologic disease can run into thousands of dollars.

    Although the decision to proceed with euthanasia must be made by you, that decision should be based on sound facts about the horse's predicament. Issues associated with euthanasia should be discussed carefully with the attending veterinarian.

    Loss of Use

    Loss of use is perhaps one of the most contentious issues in animals. Do we have the right to euthanize horses because they have lost their intended use? This practice is generally discouraged, although many people choose to send their horse down the road on "the truck." In fact, there are between 30,000 to 70,000 horses killed in slaughter houses each year in the United States alone, many for loss of use problems.

    Some insurance plans will pay on claims that the horse has lost the intended athletic or reproductive usefulness, but euthanasia is not required in all cases. For example, Cigar, the famous thoroughbred racing stallion, was found to be sterile, and a claim for several million dollars was paid due to his loss of reproductive utility. It was not necessary to euthanize him, and he is retired happily in the pastures of Kentucky, apparently owned by the insurance company.

    Insurance Companies

    Insurance companies can provide compensation for the specified value of horses in the event of euthanasia (mortality insurance). As a rule, mortality insurance money is provided if euthanasia is needed based on humane grounds, if the affected horse is a danger to itself or its handlers, if the horse is in a persistent state of pain, if the horse requires on-going medication to alleviate suffering, or if the horse is affected with a chronic and incurable disease. When considering euthanasia for an insured horse, you should discuss the circumstances with the insurance company's representative. Typically, the insurance company will require that a veterinary pathologist perform a post- mortem examination on the horse and the attending veterinarian complete insurance company paperwork in which the reason(s) for euthanasia is justified.

    In many instances, a "second opinion" might be sought prior to making the decision for euthanasia. Unless the urgency of the medical situation precludes the time needed for a second opinion, another veterinarian's perspective can be useful to help clarify the need for euthanasia. Veterinarians should be amenable to this request, just as physicians should honor our requests for second opinions.

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