Sadly having a horse put down is something most owners will experience at some point. It is important to understand what to expect during equine euthanasia and to consider your options in advance so you have a plan of action to follow if you need it in an emergency, rather than trying to make these decisions at what is likely to be an emotional time.
Methods of equine euthanasia
Euthanasia is a method of providing a humane, painless and rapid death. A horse is normally euthanised either using a lethal injection, or by shooting in Great Britain. Only a vet can administer the lethal injection, while a vet, hunt kennelman, knackerman, or licensed horse slaughterer can dispatch a horse by shooting if they hold the correct licenses. Many owners have a preference for which method to use, but the particular circumstances being faced at the time should be taken into consideration to ensure the welfare of the horse and the safety of all involved in the process. The owner normally will be required to sign a consent form prior to euthanasia being carried out. In an emergency, verbal consent may be obtained initially.
When a horse is put down by injection, typically an intravenous catheter is placed in the jugular vein to aid the safe administration of the required amount of the appropriate medication. Sometimes, but not always, vets will sedate the horse before giving an overdose of anaesthetic-type drugs. If the horse is standing when the drugs are administered, it will collapse to the floor and become unconscious with death occurring shortly afterwards. The horse may appear to gasp once to twice during the process. The horse’s eyes will remain open.
Two methods are available to dispatch a horse by shooting: a free-bullet humane slaughtering pistol or a captive bolt stunner. The latter is not normally used in horses.
The horse may be sedated prior to being shot to reduce the likelihood of sudden unexpected movement of the horse’s head interfering with the procedure. Sometimes a bucket of food to encourage the horse to keep its head still. The muzzle of the humane slaughtering pistol is placed close to the horse’s forehead and the trigger pulled, sending the bullet into the horse’s brain stem. The horse will die instantly, fall to the ground with its legs extended and a significant amount of blood may pour from the nose. While on the ground the horse’s legs may move and the horse may appear to gasp. These are involuntary movements caused by muscle reflexes that occur after death. The eyes will remain open.
If the captive bolt stunner is used, the horse is rendered unconscious by firing the retractable bolt into the brain. A rod is then inserted into the hole made by the bolt to destroy the brain, causing death. This procedure is called pithing. It is rarely used and is generally not considered to be a method of choice, but may be an option when it is not safe to use a free bullet.
Where should euthanasia of a horse take place?
Most horses are put down at home or at a veterinary clinic. While it may not be possible to choose the location in an emergency, if your horse is at its normal stables and you are able to plan, then consider the location of other animals, how easy it will be to access the site to remove the body and how likely it is for people to come across the body while it is awaiting collection. If you are on a livery yard then other liveries should be advised. If you have close neighbours, then it would be wise to let them know too, especially if their property has a sight line over the area where the procedure is going to take place.
Whether or not you want to be with your horse at the end is a personal preference, but the people involved in the procedure are professionals who will want to ensure it goes smoothly. Do discuss it with them and they will be able to advise you. If you feel you will be able to remain calm and relaxed at this difficult time then your horse may find your presence reassuring, but if the emotions are overwhelming, it may be better to say your goodbyes and walk away. Never let the horse be aware of your distress. Someone must be available to confirm which horse is to be put down to avoid any tragic yet avoidable cases of mistaken identity from occurring and to sign the appropriate consent documentation. You are likely to be required to present the horse’s passport to confirm the horse’s identity.
If you wish to have a horse slaughtered at a licensed abattoir, then the horse must be fit to travel, be accompanied by its passport and not have received any medication in the past six months. To be slaughtered for human consumption, the horse must not have been signed out of the food chain in its passport and must have not received certain medications at any time – these include some common drugs such as phenylbutazone.
Allowing other horses to see the body
Opinions are mixed about whether a horse that is a close field or stable companion should be given the chance to see the body after the horse has been dispatched. Some feel this helps a horse that may be distressed by the sudden loss of its companion to understand that they will not be returning, but it is not a cut and dried situation. Some horses can be extremely spooky at the sight of their lifeless companion on the ground – particularly in cases where there has been significant blood loss – while others will ignore the fallen horse completely. If you want to give a horse the chance to view the body then do so with care and do not force the horse to approach if they appear unwilling to do so. Equally upsetting is the way that others will apparently ignore the fallen horse completely.
The methods of disposal of the body will depend on how the horse was put down and its health status immediately prior to being dispatched.
Cremation: there are a number of companies that will collect the horse’s body and cremate it. This service can be used following any method of euthanasia regardless of health status. Many companies offer the optional return of ashes in a casket, while some will return tail hair or horseshoes cleaned and mounted. If it is important to you that your horse’s body is transported alone and is cremated individually, do check that the company has the appropriate facilities in order to do so and also check the costs, which can be high. Some crematoriums can only handle smaller pets, and have to send large animals off-site so it is worth doing your research to ensure you are getting the service you expect.
Incineration: If you simply wish to have your horse’s body disposed of, and do not require the ashes returned to you, some companies offer a basic collection and incineration service, which is typically cheaper than cremation. It is possible that the horse’s body may be broken up prior to being incinerated. Some hunt kennels offer incineration for fallen stock in their area that is not suitable for feeding hounds.
Hunt kennels: Some hunt kennels offer a collection service for horses that were not put down by lethal injection or were suffering from a disease that renders the body unsuitable for hounds.
The National Fallen Stock Company: NFSCO is a ‘not for profit Community Interest Company’ that provides a nationwide service for the collection and disposal of fallen stock around the country, including horses, through around 100 fallen stock collectors.
Burial: At the current time, pet horses can be buried in Scotland and Wales while in England you’re allowed to bury horses whether they are pets or not. However, before going ahead you need to contact your local trading standards office and the Environment Agency as there are strict rules about groundwater that need to be adhered to.
Insurance considerations for equine euthanasia
Many owners of horses that are insured for mortality are surprised when they try to claim on their insurance after having a horse put down and find their claim is rejected. If a horse is insured, unless the horse has to be euthanised immediately on welfare grounds, the insurance company should be contacted prior to the horse being dispatched. It is important that you discuss your horse’s insurance situation with your vet beforehand.
In most cases mortality insurance will only pay out if all avenues of treatment have been exhausted and the horse’s health makes field retirement impossible. If as an owner you believe the right thing to do for the horse’s welfare is to have the horse put down, even if your vet is in agreement with you, this does not necessarily mean you will be able to claim on your mortality insurance for the value of the horse.
You should check the small print of your insurance policy to see what evidence your insurer requires for a claim to be paid, but most follow the BEVA guidelines, which state: “That the insured horse sustains an injury or manifests an illness or disease that is so severe as to warrant immediate destruction to relieve incurable and excessive pain and that no other options of treatment are available to that horse at that time”.
In cases where the horse is to be put down as the result of a chronic injury or disease, while you may be able to claim if you have a loss of use or permanent incapacity insurance policy, a mortality insurance claim would require additional evidence that may include that the horse is living in significant pain, that there is no recognised or appropriate treatment available, and it is not possible to alleviate their suffering via pain-relieving drugs – or that the horse is likely to die within the insurance period as a result of the condition.
In long standing cases, such as ongoing lameness, insurers should be advised as early as possible. Each case will be judged on the individual circumstances and is likely to require negotiation between the owner and insurer. Insurers may request a second veterinary opinion before agreeing for a horse to be put down. If the owner has the horse put down without their insurance company’s agreement, that is likely to invalidate the claim. The best advice is to speak to your insurance company early, keep them abreast of all developments and request permission to have the horse euthanised in writing prior to going ahead with the procedure.
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