Equine euthanasia: Advice on making the toughest call for an elderly or infirm horse *H&H Plus*

  • The toughest decision is often the kindest with an elderly or infirm horse. Kieran O’Brien MRCVS offers advice on making the hardest call

    Recent research found that less than one in 10 horses die of natural causes. For the remainder, a conscious and often agonising decision to end the animal’s life must be made by the owner.

    A critical illness, such as incurable colic, or a major irreparable injury will carry an inevitability which eases the decision-making process. In the case of an old or infirm horse who is slowly but progressively declining, however, the call must be made in cold blood.

    Often, owners want us, as vets, to nudge them towards a conclusion. This is not difficult if the horse is clearly suffering, yet in more marginal cases a frank conversation must be had in which together we weigh up all aspects of the horse’s life – both now and in the future. Euthanasia may then be decided upon or postponed until a later date. But the horse’s welfare must come first; when his life is becoming a burden, it is time to act.

    We can objectively assess a horse’s quality of life by asking the following questions:

    • Is his life reasonably normal? He needs to be able to graze for most of the day, to get up and lie down unaided, and to walk and trot easily in the field – in the company of other horses who are respectful and do not bully him.
    • Is he maintaining body weight? A gaunt, angular appearance is often part of the ageing process. If a horse is correctly fed and provided with rugs or shelter in cold weather, however, he should still have reasonable fat and muscle cover.Failure to maintain body condition in old age usually reflects significant dental disease. Uneven, worn out or missing cheek teeth can make it difficult for a veteran to chew hay; in some cases, he may stop eating it altogether. Such a horse may show cyclical changes in body weight, gaining condition in summer and autumn when grass is easily chewed, but losing weight over the winter while principally living on hay.There are now many special soft feeds that allow horses with dental disease to thrive, if they are fed in a sufficient quantity based on nutritional advice. Failure to gain or even maintain body weight, despite this, is an ominous sign and may herald irreversible decline.

      Other causes of weight loss in elderly horses include parasitism and Cushing’s disease. The latter can be treated with medication, but in some cases this may cost more than the owner is able or willing to spend.

      Incurable cancer affecting the abdomen or chest can cause subtle but progressive decline. In the later stages, this may be accompanied by other signs such as coughing, loose faeces or recurrent colic.

    • Is he in pain? Although “stiffness” is regarded by many owners as a benign and inevitable consequence of old age, most elderly horses are stiff because they have joint pain. Consequently, many show a life-changing improvement when given painkillers such as phenylbutazone (bute).Signs of arthritis in an older horse include variable lameness, a reluctance to have his feet held up by the farrier, unwillingness to lie down and difficulty in rising after periods of recumbency. These are often more obvious in the winter months, when an arthritic horse is typically less active – standing immobile while sheltering from wind and rain or eating hay while at pasture, and stabled for part of the day. If he is still being ridden, short days and bad weather can mean less exercise.Arthritis is a progressive disease and physical issues may eventually respond poorly to medication. Repeated difficulty in standing up should prompt urgent consideration of ending the horse’s life. If ignored, he may be found unable to stand after a long, painful struggle and must be euthanised in situ.

    A peaceful end

    The term “euthanasia” derives from the Greek words for “a good death”, since it brings relief from pain and is carried out in a way that does not in itself cause additional distress. Horses are humanely destroyed by shooting, or more commonly nowadays by lethal injection. A vet may give the horse light sedation to allay any stress.

    Shooting is highly effective if done skilfully (by a vet, hunt kennelman or knackerman, with a firearms licence) and death is instantaneous, although there may be significant bleeding from the nostrils. The lethal injection most commonly used is a combination of an anaesthetic and a drug that causes cardiac arrest. The process is slower and less traumatic to witness. The horse sinks to the ground unconscious after about 30 seconds, and within a further two minutes his heart will stop – enabling the owner to give him a final hug and say a few words of farewell.

    It is understandable to feel apprehensive about being present. Since this anxiety may be communicated to the horse, it may be wise to say goodbye beforehand and then depart, leaving a trusted friend to assist.

    If the horse was closely bonded in a pair, allow the remaining companion to approach and sniff the dead body, where practical, leaving him to spend time with it if he wishes. While some bereaved horses will then happily lead a solitary life, others will require a new friend. Ideally, introduce a companion to the pair a week or two beforehand so that the three form their own herd.

    Planning ahead

    Making a euthanasia plan well in advance will ease the emotional burden when the time eventually comes. Talk to your vet about the technique and its implications, and consider disposal of the body and the associated costs.

    You may decide that the body will be taken away by fallen stock operators, for rendering or incineration, or to use a hunt that offers a casualty recovery service. Some owners arrange to keep all or part of the ashes or to bury the horse on private land, where legislation permits. Research the options so that you understand the logistics involved and can budget accordingly.

    Many of us form particularly strong bonds with our treasured companions and are heartbroken when we lose them. Whether the end comes suddenly, or after some difficult decision-making, being prepared will make it easier to give your horse the good death that he deserves.

    One winter too many?

    The colder months can be especially challenging for the retired horse. Since recognising a decline in an animal’s condition can be difficult when you see him on a daily basis, it may be wise to ask a vet or an experienced friend for an objective opinion on his quality of life and whether it is fair to put a him through another winter.

    If it is time for a dignified end, it is vital that a horse is formally identified prior to euthanasia. His passport and microchip should be checked by the vet and a consent form signed by the owner.

    Any horse destroyed on humane grounds must meet certain criteria to satisfy the requirements of a mortality insurance policy. Contact your insurance company in advance; they may ask for veterinary confirmation of his identity and the reason for euthanasia, and, in some cases, a post mortem.

    Help is at hand if you need advice and support. World Horse Welfare offers a Just In Case information pack and an end-of-life helpline, while the British Horse Society Friends At The End initiative can put you in touch with a trained volunteer to assist you through the process.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 8 October 2020