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Euthanasia - The Tough Decision

An undeniable fact of life is that all living things must die. When we own horses, we take on the responsibility of being good stewards for these animals. In doing so, we are committed to make the ultimate decision of when to end our horse's pain and suffering.

There are times when it is not complicated to decide that the horse needs to be euthanized, as when there is a severe broken limb or when a horse is suffering from a colic that is not treatable medically and surgery is not an option. But there are other circumstances that may not be as black and white. Along with the decision to euthanize, there is the consideration of what to do with the body after the horse is deceased. Many factors weigh into these decisions. Having the information beforehand and thinking about this decision can help you concentrate on the moment and not on the logistics.

The decision making process will normally include the age of your horse, the disease process and its prognosis, length, and intensity of treatment, and above all the horse's quality of life. For many an additional consideration will be the cost of treatment. With medical advancements, improved nutrition, and better management, our horses are living longer than ever before. Horses are considered geriatric when they are in their late teens to twenties. This true because as a horse ages, all systems in the body start slowing down and wearing out. Yet, we still have horses living well into their thirties and some into their forties. An older horse usually carries a poorer prognosis for recovering from certain diseases and surgeries than younger horses because of their decreased ability to recuperate and repair. Another example relating to age is younger horse has a certain disease that requires a lifetime of expensive and intense therapy and treatments. If without these treatments his/her quality of life would suffer, the decision to euthanize could be justified. The cost and effort that can be put into treating a horse can be a delicate issue. Each person has to decide with what they are willing commit to both financially and with their time to treat their horse. In these situations there are no "right or wrong" answers.

Another critical part of the decision making process is: When does quality of life come into the picture and how to decide it is compromised? Ask these questions to your self. How many good days does your horse have compared to how many bad ones? Is your horse doing the normal things they usually do? Is he/she lying down more often than he usually does? Does he/she look like they are suffering and not tolerating pain? All of this together can help you and give you insight in when to make this difficult decision.

Now that the decision has been made, two questions remain: what is involved in the actual procedure and what is done with the body? To cause euthanasia in an animal we inject an over dose of an anesthetic like Phenobarbital, into the blood stream. This causes unconsciousness within seconds and eventually depresses all body systems so that brain death occurs, subsequently breathing and the heart stops. The horse is not apprehensive about the procedure and feels nothing but the initial needle stick. Although many horses do not, there are many reactions that the horse might have and none are should be considered abnormal.

Horses may:

  • Appear excited

  • Seem to struggle

  • Rear up

  • Buckle and fall hard

  • Hit the ground hard with his/her body and head

  • Exhibit muscle twitching

  • "Paddle" or "run in place" on the ground

  • Exhibit leg stiffening

  • Urinate, defecate, flatulate

  • Release several gasps after death

  • Bleed from the nose, mouth, catheter or needle insertion sites

  • Have eyes open

  • Have a heartbeat for several minutes after death has actually occurred

After the animal is dead, the remains need to be disposed of. The most common way of disposing of large animals is by calling a rendering service and having them take the remains. In this area there is only one company that provides this service. Their fees range from $75 to $130 per animal depending on your location. Other options include cremation and burial. Precious Memories Pet Cemetery and Crematory is the only facility in this area that can handle horse cremations and the only public facility to bury your horse. Either cremation or burial of a thousand pound horse can cost as much as $850. Burial on ones' own property can cost somewhat less, but still requires a backhoe or some other piece of large equipment to dig a large and deep enough hole and county health codes limit the legality of this option. Another route is to have the horse taken to CSU for a necropsy, (an animal autopsy). The choices for the animal after the necropsy is for them to be either disposed of by the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, returned to the owner for burial, or sent to Precious Memories for cremation and/or burial.

The choice to euthanize a beloved friend and companion is never an easy decision to make. Knowing ahead of time what the options are, can take some of the worry and anxiety out of the situation.