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Euthanasia — What You Need To Know About Putting a Horse Down

It’s something no horse owner wants to think about. Although horses have a life expectancy of twenty-five to thirty years, we are never ready to say goodbye to our old friends. However, even younger horses can face the prospect of euthanasia in the event of severe illness or injuries.
Unpleasant as the prospect is, having a plan and knowing what to expect can save both you and your horse unnecessary suffering.

The decision is left in the owner’s hands. Few veterinarians will recommend that a horse should be put down. Their job is not to do that. If your horse becomes very ill, badly hurt, or is facing emergency surgery, the veterinarian’s role is to clearly communicate the facts about your horse’s condition and its odds of survival and recovery. This gives you the
information you need to make a decision about what to do next.

However, most veterinarians will offer euthanasia if there is no chance that the horse will survive or no other way of relieving its suffering. Sometimes, they will also discuss euthanasia if the horse has become a danger to itself, its owners, or the horses around it. Even in these circumstances, the final decision rests with the owner.

Also, some veterinarians may refuse to euthanize a horse at the owner’s request because it has become too old or arthritic to rid. A horse might not be able to be ridden or used, but it can still be a good companion animal and live comfortably if turned out to pasture. If the owner is unable or unwilling to bear the expense of keeping an unusable horse, the veterinarian will often weigh the horse’s prospects of finding another home before refusing or agreeing to the owner’s request to put it down.

Not only can a veterinarian refuse to put down a horse that he feels is healthy if unusable, he may also refuse to try to save a horse if he feels its death is inevitable or that the treatment will only prolong its suffering. The veterinarian has the ethical duty and right to make these decisions, but this can be difficult for an owner to understand when already upset at the prospect of losing their valued horse.

Also, if your horse is insured, you should make sure that you have read and understand the coverage before euthanizing your animal. Policy provisions and exceptions can add an additional layer of complexity to an already difficult decision. Insurance companies want to be informed of health problems before they reach the point where euthanasia is an issue. Being familiar with your policy and its terms can save your horse hours of suffering should an emergency occur.

While you do not have to delay emergency surgery if you can’t reach your insurance company, most of them want to authorize the use of anesthesia. You may have to notify them after the surgery has already begun. Many will authorize the veterinary surgeon to use his best judgment in the event the insurance company cannot be reached, and report to them on the next business day.

However, this is often not the case with euthanasia. The insurance company often requires that it approves this procedure before you can put your horse down. If they feel that you have not done everything in your power to keep the insurance company informed, they may refuse to pay on the policy due to “neglected duties of prior or timely notification.”

The best-case scenarios for euthanizing a horse both involve intravenous barbiturate overdose. A horse undergoing surgery can be given the overdose via the already-established IV if it becomes clear during the surgery that the horse will not survive. It is also common for a horse to be euthanized by intravenous injection outside of surgery. As soon as the drug is given, the horse loses consciousness, and its pain is relieved almost instantly. This can be a comforting thought for the owners.

Beyond these scenarios, things can get a bit more difficult. If your horse is badly injured or in significant pain it can be dangerous to attempt to use an injection. If it is in shock, its circulation may be too impaired to transport the drug to its brain and heart, and the veins may be difficult or impossible to locate to administer it. In this situation, the veterinarian may need to use a .22-caliber pistol to euthanize the animal.

The gun should be positioned perpendicular to the forehead, in the center of an imaginary X formed by a line from its left ear to right eye, and right ear to left eye. If the gun is properly positioned, death is instantaneous.

The veterinarian will listen for a heartbeat or check the eye for a reaction by touching it to ensure that the horse is dead. The eyes of horses are very sensitive, and if any sensation remains in a severely injured but living horse, it will be felt in the eye.

If a horse needs to be put down while being transported, either due to illness or a trailer accident, the owner should call the state police. They can recommend a local veterinarian to euthanize the horse, or in emergencies where the horse is in extreme pain, they can shoot the animal to end its suffering.

If your horse is injured during competition, check to see if they have a veterinarian on hand to handle emergencies. Most large competitions will, but smaller gatherings may not. If not, ask the competition management to put you in touch with a local veterinarian. If the vet must euthanize your horse, he can also advise you on the best way to remove the horse’s body for burial or disposal.

Being present during your horse’s euthanization is a personal choice. Veterinarians usually advise against it, however. Anytime a large animal is put down, things may not go as planned. This is especially true during stressful situations, such as those that might necessitate an emergency euthanasia procedure. The complications which sometime arise when a horse is put down can be distressing, dangerous, or unpleasant to watch. Unless you are sure you can handle this, it is best not to be present.

Unfortunately, deciding to put your horse down and enduring the process is not the end of it. There is still the matter of dealing with your horse’s body. If your horse is euthanized at an equine hospital, they will probably offer to take care of the disposal for an additional fee. Otherwise, the arrangements are left up to the owner.

If at all possible, try not to delay burial. Rigor mortis sets in around two hours after death, making it more difficult to move the horse’s body and necessitating a much deeper and wider grave to bury it. Rigor mortis persists for around a day. Unfortunately, if you have not located someone nearby with a backhoe before your horse is put down, it might take this long to hire the backhoe and dig the grave.

It is better to talk with other horse owners in your area and know the name and phone number of a reliable backhoe operator before you need him. If you board your horse, the barn manager may be able to recommend someone to you. Also check with your local county offices to make sure that there are no ordinances prohibiting the burial of large animals at your location. If you know this information in advance, you can arrange to haul your horse’s body to another location for disposal. Removal services may also be available, and your veterinarian probably knows about them if they are.

If you have advance notice that your horse is going to be put down, have the burial spot picked out and the grave dug before your veterinarian arrives. It’s important to choose a spot which does not drain toward a well or water supply for sanitary purposes. It is safe to bury your horse in a pasture used by other horses, so long as you are sure the earth over the burial site is well-packed. However, if your horse has died from a contagious disease, it’s best to bury him far from your other horses or, preferably, use a professional disposal service to properly take care of the body.

If you are unable to bury your horse, sometimes you will be able to find a rendering service. Some will even pick up the body free of charge. County landfills may also allow you to drop off animal remains, but you must take care of transporting the body there. Your equine veterinarian is a reliable source of information as to what is available in your area, and may have good recommendations for you.

It is also possible to have your horse cremated rather than buried or hauled off.

If the owner wishes, the horse’s ashes can be placed in a decorative urn and returned to the owner by mail after the horse is cremated. Owners should be aware that the cremation of an average size horse will produce forty to forty-five pounds of ashes. The owner will also receive a certificate which states that the ashes are guaranteed to be those of the owner’s horse.

On average, the cremation of a horse costs around three hundred dollars. This is roughly equivalent to the cost of hiring a backhoe to bury the horse.

Read the next horse health tips article on Evaluating A Horse's General Condition.
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