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When to Consider Euthanasia in Horses

By: PetPlace Staff

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Many animals suffer with chronic diseases or cancer. Often these diseases can be managed and controlled in such a way that life is prolonged. However, quality of life is an equally important factor to most horse owners and it is the issue that most often influences the decision to have a veterinarian perform euthanasia.

Quality of life is a personal judgment. You know your animal better than anyone else. 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.

Quality of Life

Animals with chronic or incurable diseases that are given proper medication and care should be able to:

  • Eat, drink and sleep comfortably without shortness of breath.

  • Act interested in what's going on around them.

  • Do mild exercise.

  • Have control of their urine and bowel movements –unless the disease affects one of these organ systems.

  • Appear comfortable and free of moderate to severe pain.

    Of course, whenever there is a chronic condition, some days will be better than others and one should learn to expect the natural "ups and downs" that attend most chronic disease conditions. You must determine what balance is acceptable for your situation. Speak with your veterinarian if you have any questions or concerns regarding the diagnosis or treatment of your horse's disease.

    The Effects of Medication

    If your horse is taking medication for an illness or disease, ask your veterinarian if side effects from the medicine could be causing adverse symptoms, such as loss of appetite, vomiting or diarrhea. Sometimes it is the medicine, not the disease, that makes a horse appear more ill. Adjusting the dose or changing the medicine can have a positive effect. However, don't stop giving prescribed medication until you speak with your veterinarian.

    The High Cost of Care

    Some acute and chronic diseases are very difficult, expensive or time-consuming to treat. The medical bills that may accumulate can influence one's decision regarding euthanasia. These are practical decisions that must be made by you relative to your own financial and family situation.

    Though a lack of financial or personal resources for medical care may be a source of guilt, it is better to discuss the overall situation with your veterinarian and consider your options rather than allow your horse to suffer without proper veterinary medical care.

    A Difficult Decision

    Euthanasia literally means an "easy and painless death." You may know it as "putting a horse to sleep" or "putting an animal down." It is the deliberate act of ending life and horse owners who must make this decision often feel anxiety or even guilt.

    Before the procedure is done, you will be asked to sign a paper to authorize the procedure. Euthanasia usually is performed by a veterinarian and is a humane and painless procedure.

    You will be given the following options for witnessing the procedure: You may be present with the horse during the euthanasia, you may wish to see their horse after euthanasia, or you may want to say goodbye to your horse before the euthanasia and not see him again.

    Will It Hurt?

    The following is a description of a typical euthanasia procedure. If you do not wish to read about this procedure, please close this document now.

    Euthanasia is very humane and virtually painless. First, you will need to decide what you would like to have done with the remains. You can discuss your options with your veterinarian before the euthanasia procedure.

    Euthanasia is usually performed by a veterinarian. The most typical procedure involves an intravenous injection of a barbiturate anesthetic given at a high concentration (overdose). In general, the euthanasia is rapid, usually within seconds, and very peaceful. Your horse will just go to sleep. On rare occasions there may be a brief vocalization or cry as consciousness is lost; this is not pain although you may misinterpreted it as such.

    Within seconds of starting the injection the anesthetic overdose will cause the heart to slow and then stop, and any circulation in the body will cease. As the heart stops and the blood pressure decreases, the unconscious animal will stop breathing, circulation to the brain will cease and your horse will die peacefully. If the injection is given while the horse is standing, he may abruptly fall to the ground. This is not painful for the horse since he is already unconscious.

    Once your horse has died, you might observe involuntary muscle contractions or respiratory gasps about one or two minutes after the loss of consciousness and circulation. Again this is not evidence of pain or consciousness, but instead, it represents a physiologic response that occurs whenever the brain is deprived of circulation. The unconscious animal may also lose bladder or bowel control.

    After the Goodbye

    Before the procedure, discuss what you want done with the body with your veterinarian. Again, this is a matter of personal taste and preference.

  • Burial at home. Many cities have ordinances against home burial so check with your local officials before laying your horse to rest. This is however, the most common form of after death care on farms and ranches.

  • Cemeteries. Similar to human burial, a casket and headstone are selected. Services are available with or without viewing of the remains. Ask your veterinarian or check your local telephone directory to find a nearby horse cemetery.

  • Cremation. Typically, cremation is available in most large cities. Some crematories will privately cremate your horse so you can save the ashes for scattering, burial or storing in an urn. Check with your veterinarian about contacting an animal crematory center. Due to the large size of horses, sometimes only part of the animal can be cremated. Discuss this with the crematorium.

  • Rendering. Rendering is a process where the body of the horse is reduced to very small particles and used in other manufacturing purposes. This is often the least costly of all forms of after death care but may not be an option if barbituates were used to euthanize. Discuss this option with your veterinarian.

  • Other options. There are a few nontraditional choices available regarding the handling of horse remains. Some people chose to consult a taxidermist and others may be interested in cryogenics, which involves freezing the remains. Research and many telephone calls may be necessary.

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