With its low survival rate, grass sickness is one of the most distressing equine diseases. The horse or pony will either come down with acute colic symptoms or suffer gradual weight loss.
Six-year-old Buttons was referred to the Royal Veterinary College with weight loss and difficulty eating. His vet was concerned about grass sickness as a horse on the same yard had died the year before.
When Buttons first arrived he weighed 450kg, was reluctant to eat and was depressed. He only ate small amounts, but quickly lost interest, so by offering him a variety of feeds, with and without molasses, we managed to get him to eat something each day, but only by hand. We also gave him carrots and apples. Buttons had difficulty eating hay, so we cut it into short lengths and soaked it to make it easier for him to manage.
Buttons loved human contact and when left on his own he became depressed and stopped eating, so we groomed him at every opportunity and led him out for walks togive him an interest in life. In the hospital environment, a companion sheep or goat would not be suitable as so many people have to go in and out of the stable.
At the beginning of the week we noticed that Buttons had slight muscle tremors, which gradually got worse. Then he began to break out in sweaty patches around his shoulders and flanks. We used a sweat rug to ensure he was as dry and comfortable as possible.
The vets did a number of tests to check for grass sickness and confirmed that it was chronic. A small number of horses will survive with a lot of after-care, depending on how much they deteriorate and whether or not they can carry on eating.
However, at the end of the first week, Buttons had lost 50kg and looked like a Greyhound. He was eating less and less despite all our efforts to help him. Towards the end of the week he had lost even more weight as he was eating virtually nothing, and he spent most of his time lying down. His condition gradually worsened and he lost all interest in life.
As Buttons’s chances of recovering were virtually nil, his owner had to make the difficult decision to have him put down before he began to suffer. On his final day we managed to take him for a short walk and left him alone with his owner to say goodbye.
The vet gave Buttons an intravenous injection of an overdose of anaesthetic, which acted quickly, making it a peaceful death. He was then cremated.
Taking the final decision
The decision to have your horse put down is a difficult one. You need to consider: the degree of suffering, the chances of recovery and the horse’s quality of life after recovery.
Buttons was put down by an injection which can onlybe carried out by your vet. If you prefer to have your horse shot, this can be done by either your vet or another licensed person, such as the knackerman or local hunt kennelman.
After a horse has been injected he will have to be disposed of specially, which can be expensive. The least expensive option is for the knackerman or the hunt kennelman to remove the body.
Some owners prefer burial, but this can be difficult due to the horse’s size. You must contact your local environmental health department and the National Rivers Authority. Many owners prefer cremation, which can be a simple cremation, cremation with some ashes back or individual cremation with all the ashes back.