Caring for Horses Through Life and Death

Picture of older horse laying in the grass.

Caring for Horses Through Life and Death

Medical advances and an ever-increasing knowledge base about health and disease over the last century have resulted in longer lives for humans and animals. Picture of an older Thoroughbred horse grazing.However, prolonging life does not always equal quality of life. As with humans, increased longevity due to better care has resulted in increased populations of older horses who will one day begin a decline. Illness and debilitation may come gradually over an extended period, accompanied by a subtle rise in suffering. 

Euthanasia, or the humane termination of an animal’s life, is a gift that we give to our suffering animals. When properly chosen and applied, it is one of the most humane acts a person can accomplish. Unfortunately, there is no one who can give you a precise answer as to when such a gift should be given. It is a personal decision that each of us has to make based on our own values and experiences.

The decision is rarely made easily but often comes less painfully to those who have thought about it ahead of time. We recommend that animal owners, especially those with older animals, establish a close working relationship with their attending veterinarians. They should discuss the subject of euthanasia with those caregivers and come to an understanding of how the events surrounding the loss of their animals should be handled – not just if, when and how euthanasia should be performed, but who should be present, where it should occur, and what is to be done with the animal afterward. 

Life for all living creatures comes to an end. While it is easier to avoid thinking about the subject, we have the ability to make that end lovingly easy for our beloved animals. Your veterinarian can guide you in making this determination, especially regarding the degree to which the horse is suffering. Each case should be addressed on its own merits.

  • Decision-Making Techniques: When Is It Time?
  • Dr. Carolyn Stull, a UC Davis Cooperative Extension Specialist and lecturer on animal welfare issues, has authored numerous articles on the welfare of horses. Her research has informed the general humane endpoints for horses that could be considered by their owner, including the development of conditions that result in untreatable excruciating pain, a 20% decrease in their normal body weight, or the inability to reach food and water. The endpoints should be recognizable to the owner and can be monitored over time to establish their significance.

    The MEDW criteria can be used in daily monitoring of the stages of disability of a horse, such as a geriatric horse, to evaluate normal ambulatory movement (M), eating (E), drinking (D), and body weight (W). The horse should also be evaluated for its ability to rise from a recumbent position. Horses that can no longer rise on their own will be susceptible to colic due to their propensity to compromise gut function while down.

    Some endpoints using the MEDW criteria include the constant struggling of a horse to perform simple movement activities (M), a compromised eating desire or dental function (E), a failure to consume adequate amounts of water (D), or a deteriorated body condition with a loss of 20% or more of body weight (W). These simple observations can be recorded daily over time and reviewed in making an informed decision for euthanasia of an individual horse.

    Assessing the horse’s quality of life is another technique to assist owners and veterinarians with decision-making. This method assesses the horse at regular intervals using criteria such as the impacts or deficiencies of its environment, nutrition, behavior, and biological and pathological measures, as well as the owner’s evaluations. In many instances, palliative care can be instituted that provides quality of life over quantity.

    The scientific literature contains a number of studies on assessing the quality of life in horses. Several studies point out that while health is an important aspect of defining quality of life for a horse, any judgement about quality of life should include discomforts of emotional/psychological origin such as fear, anxiety, boredom, frustration, loneliness, separation distress, and depression, some of which may be husbandry-related. Conversely, pleasure derived from physical contact, eating, social companionship and mental stimulation should also be included in the overall assessment. Quality of life is a uniquely individual experience and should be measured from the perspective of the individual horse. Owners often fear they will not know when it is time and worry that they are holding on to meet their own needs. Ultimately, most horse owners have a threshold or line that exists, and when the horse crosses it, the decision becomes more obvious.
  • Reasons for Euthanasia
  • There is a wide range of reasons to consider euthanasia of a horse, but usually the horse is considered old and debilitated (falls), sick, injured, dangerous or unwanted. Some decisions are based on an acute emergency situation, while others are related to chronic and progressive conditions that worsen over time. Catastrophic accidents are usually an emergency, such as those caused by natural disasters, as are accidents that occur during transportation, breeding and foaling, riding, training, and other equine activities.

    As horses age, there may be progressive compromise in the function of their vital systems, behavior, or ability to move about, all of which can cause the horse to suffer. Illnesses in horses of any age that have a poor prognosis, treatment that is cost-prohibitive, or associated pain that cannot be controlled or alleviated should be considerations for euthanasia. Common examples of this are progressive laminitis, advanced neurologic disease and unresolving colic.

    Safety factors may warrant consideration of euthanasia with a horse that is dangerous to itself, to its handlers, or even other herd mates. Personal situations of the horse owner or management of the horse may also be a reason for requesting or electing euthanasia. Situations may include the physical inability to treat or care for a horse or financial impairment such as loss of a job. When financial constraints are present, every effort should be made to rehome a healthy horse.

    Justification for euthanizing a horse for humane reasons should be based on both medical considerations as well as quality of life issues for the horse. Although not a replacement for consultation with a veterinarian, the guidelines for euthanasia developed by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) should be considered.
  • When the Time Comes to Consider Euthanasia
  • By Lynette Hart, PhD, and Benjamin Hart, DVM, PhD

    Losing a horse is among the hardest and most conflicting end-of-life challenges for caregivers of companion animals. It may be useful to acknowledge unique aspects of dealing with the euthanasia of a horse. First is the nature of the relationship. Second concerns the challenges of body size. The third is the range of decisions to be made at the time of euthanasia.

    Most people with horses have also experienced relationships with dogs and/or cats and have lived through the animals’ life cycles with sad partings. Dogs and cats serve primarily as companions, and the loss of their companionship leaves big holes felt throughout the day. Although a horse is not an around-the-clock companion for many people, horses are often working partners for riding and sport, and the working partnership is at the heart of the relationship. Because horses live longer than dogs or cats, they are with us for a longer time. Thus, they may leave an even bigger hole when gone.

    Horse people universally feel that nothing equals the magnificence, beauty and power of the horse. But the body size carries obligate requirements for care, housing, transport, and medical expenses. Body size poses complexities with euthanasia that set horses apart from our experiences with dogs and cats. Nothing is simple when dealing with such a large animal. And seeing a huge animal that has been a special friend weaken or crumble can be devastating.

    At the first moment that the working partnership falters or a chronic health problem arises, a horse owner may begin to glimpse some hard choices. The economics of owning a horse present a harsh reality, and when a horse can no longer perform as expected, the financial outlay may become unsustainable. A person may need to decide whether to maintain the horse or part with the long-term partner. A veterinarian can assist in monitoring the quality of life for the horse, evaluating the level of pain, or assessing the likelihood of improvement over time.

    Studies have evaluated risk factors associated with people’s distress in euthanizing their old horses. Those who were more susceptible to guilt, sadness and loneliness (especially women), and who focused on their relationship with the horse more than the medical prognosis, had particular difficulty with the decision. Generally, a poor medical prognosis and/or pain weighed heavily in moving toward a choice of euthanasia and left the person feeling that the decision was essential.

    Relationships of long duration have been show to result in more extreme grief than shorter ones. For those who had recovered from the grief, it had lasted an average of four months, but almost half had not recovered from the loss. Unresolved questions about the illness or euthanasia also exaggerated the grief.

    A person who knows the horse’s situation and sees that the horse’s welfare and comfort are assured throughout the process often can move forward with peace of mind in facing a painful decision. This occasion truly merits the greatest respect and consideration for the horse and the person. Revering the memory of the relationship and finding some way to celebrate the life of the horse honors the horse and can be comforting to all involved.
  • Acceptable Methods for Euthanasia
  • Acceptable euthanasia methods result in a rapid loss of consciousness, followed by respiratory and cardiac arrest, and finally the loss of brain function. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has specified acceptable methods of euthanasia as including an overdose of barbiturate drugs, gunshot, or application of a captive bolt device.

    Both gunshot and captive bolt are humane only if applied to the appropriate site on the skull and should be performed by a skilled person. The benefit of these forms of euthanasia is that the drug pentobarbital is not involved, which renders the body safe for the food chain. Gunshot is also often the only humane means to euthanize a gravely injured horse when a veterinarian is not available. For more information on appropriate administration of these techniques, please refer to the AAEP Guidelines for Euthanasia and the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals.

    Considerations in the selection of the most appropriate euthanasia method include human safety, such as the falling or thrashing of the horse, horse welfare in ensuring a quick and painless death, the amount of restraint necessary for each method, cost and environmental effects. Selection of the location of the euthanasia procedure should consider the comfort of the horse and safety of the handlers, but also the subsequent removal of the body. The location of euthanasia must allow enough room to accommodate the unpredictable direction of the horse falling.

    Pentobarbital combination is the most commonly administered form of acceptable euthanasia of companion horses in this country. Light sedation prior to euthanasia is advisable to minimize any anxiety associated with the event. A local anesthetic is often used to place an intravenous catheter once the horse has been sedated. Taking the time to perform these steps helps to ensure as peaceful a passing as possible. Such preparation is not always possible, and procedural decisions should be based on safety for the horse and handler.

    When the euthanasia solution is administered intravenously, the horse loses consciousness rapidly and no longer perceives its environment or feels pain or anxiety. There is moderate variability in drug tolerance in all species, and time to loss of consciousness can vary from horse to horse. Circumstances that have created lower blood pressure, such as severe colic, infection, shock, and moderate sedation can prolong the onset of loss of consciousness.

    When the horse starts to lose consciousness, it will usually take a deep breath and then start to buckle. The fall occurs because the brain is no longer aware of its surroundings and is no longer controlling the muscles and reflexes that maintain stance. The horse does not know it is falling and cannot control its actions or feel significant discomfort. Some horses simply sit down, others land with significant force. For the horse owner, this is a difficult image to process, and a very different experience from the small animal euthanasia, which allows for close contact as the pet passes. Many horse owners elect to stay for mild sedation but walk away before the euthanasia solution is administered. They do not want the lasting image of a fallen horse. Many will elect to come back after the horse has passed to spend some additional time before saying a final goodbye.

    Once the horse is down, there are several natural processes that occur as life energy passes out of the different body systems. Again, the horse is no longer aware, but these phenomena can confuse and startle an observer. It is not unusual for the horse to take a large, deep breath called an agonal breath. This is associated with nerve discharge to the diaphragm and breathing musculature. The horses can sometimes paddle their legs or show muscle tremoring. This, too, is associated with final nerve discharges that are not controlled by the brain, and this activity can go on for several seconds to minutes after death has occurred.

    The attending veterinarian will listen to the heart to substantiate lack of contractions. Random electrical activity of the heart can persist for many minutes after the heart is no longer beating. The veterinarian will also check the horse’s corneal reflex by touching the eyeball and looking for the blink reflex to subside. The entire process of death can take several minutes after the horse has lost consciousness. With any euthanasia method, death must be verified and confirmed before leaving the animal.

    The euthanasia solution is toxic to pets and wildlife, so any blood that remains at the site should be collected with a shovel and disposed of in a durable, plastic bag. Aftercare of the body should be arranged in advance whenever possible. Most counties have a local service that is available to pick up a deceased horse and transport him to a rendering plant or to a crematorium. It is not legal to bury horses in most counties because of the environmental implications. Horses euthanized by means other than lethal injection do not pose a risk to wildlife unless they had an infectious disease process. The process of loading the horse into the transport truck is upsetting for many, and most horse owners elect not to witness that portion of the process.

    There is a fee associated with aftercare that varies from county to county and can range up to several hundred dollars. Planning ahead for these expenses minimizes the stress associated with the end of a life.
  • Disposition of the Body
  • There are often local regulations regarding disposal procedure options of an equine carcass. Rendering is the most common method of disposal, but burial and cremation are other methods frequently used for horses. A rendering facility processes (renders) animal waste materials from supermarkets, butcher shops, restaurants, feedlots, ranches and dairies. These materials are then recycled and used for the manufacturing of soap, paints, cosmetics, lubricants, candles, animal feed and biofuel. State and local county laws will specify whether burial is allowed in a given area of the country, along with requirements for soil depth. Composting and depositing the carcass in a landfill may be an option in some states but may require special regulatory permits or approvals.

    If your horse is euthanized at a veterinary hospital, disposition of the body is usually arranged through the veterinarian. At the UC Davis veterinary hospital, clients sometimes elect to have their horse undergo a necropsy to reveal the cause of death and contribute to science and the education of veterinary students. The information gained from a necropsy may also serve to help other horses in the future or provide information for the horse owner on their management practices. For example, the discovery of parasites or enteroliths (stones in the gut) can affect the subsequent care of herd mates.

    Some horse owners elect to have their horses cremated. Since the average cost of cremation is based on weight (approximately $1/pound) and does not include transport to the facility, planning ahead for the cost and logistics of cremation is recommended for those who prefer this option for their horse. Several family owned crematories exist in the region near UC Davis and may be contacted for information: Precious Paws and Claws Pet Crematory and Koefran.
  • Human Emotions and the Grieving Process
  • The deep love and strong bonds we have with our animals can evoke profound grief and mourning when they die. It is important to honor the emotions experienced during this time and allow time to grieve.

    Although horses are often categorized as “livestock”, the relationship between people and horses is similar to the human-animal bond described for companion animals such as dogs and cats. Interviews with horse owners reveal strong feelings of attachment toward their horse, deeper levels of communicating, emotional solace with their horse, and physical displays of affection. The severity of response to the death of a horse often correlates to the duration and intensity of this relationship.

    The partnership of horse and rider as an athletic team adds to the sense of loss. The years of trust and experience that go into a successful team cannot easily be duplicated and the loss of a teammate can signify the end of the road in achieving a specific athletic goal.

    Grief and coping mechanisms from the loss of a horse can be experienced not only by the owner or rider of the horse, but also by care providers, grooms, trainers or even the horse’s veterinarian. It is expected that the different stages of grief associated with human loss are also experienced following the loss of a horse, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages may not occur for all owners but should be recognized as part of the grieving process.

    Some owners may also have other emotional reactions following the death of their horse, such as guilt or relief, depending on the specific circumstances and the role of the horse for the owner. Owners may also experience isolation, withdrawal and loneliness or fear a lack of recognition without their horse. A pet loss program offered in some areas by the local hospice organization or veterinary hospital can offer support, counseling or other outreach education for the grieving horse owner. Client support counseling services, including a pet loss support group, are available through the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

    In many cases, the barn environment creates a strong social support network that is separate from work and family life. There are many things that barn members can do to support their fellow horse enthusiast through their time of grief:

    Sharing photographs, poems, planting memorials
    Making a donation as a memorial to the horse and owner
    Reaching out to talk, sharing stories and listening
  • Helping a Child Cope with the Loss of Their Pet
  • By Soli Redfield, Pet Loss Grief Recovery Specialist

    Losing a pet can be a difficult time for a family, given that most pets are family members. They grow with us and eventually have to leave us. It is no wonder that our first instinct is to protect our children and shield them from a broken heart. While it is impossible to completely shelter a child from the loss of their pet, you can definitely help them cope through the grieving process.

    Try not to assume that a child is too old or too young to grieve. Grieving is a process that will take time. It is natural for the child to cry; let them have and embrace their own feelings. If you are fortunate enough to have time to say goodbye or time to plan the euthanasia, discuss things ahead of time. Try to do this in a comfortable setting where the child feels safe and can focus on the words you are saying.

    Children are innocent and they understand things in black and white. Be open and honest with them. If you don’t know an answer, it is okay to simply say, I don’t know. Include them in everything that is going on, explain terms in the simplest way possible: This is a kind way to take away our pet’s pain, and Our pet will die in peace, without feeling scared. Explain the permanency of death and that their pet will not return. Phrases such as put to sleep or God took our pet may be confusing and frightening to the child; I recommend using the terms dying, died and death. Children can be very accepting of reality. Reassure children that nothing they have said or done has caused their pet’s death and that the pet was lucky to share its life with the family.

    After your pet has passed, encourage your child to talk freely about their pet. It may help some children to draw pictures or to write a thank you letter to the animal. Sit down as a family and talk about all the good memories you shared, or make a scrapbook or photo album with your pet’s pictures. Have a memorial; let your child invite friends and family, say a few words and then bury special items. You can create a tombstone or personalized stepping-stones for the garden. You and your child can donate or volunteer at a local animal shelter in your pet’s name.

    No matter how your family decides to memorialize your pet, allowing your child to go through the grieving process can help them learn how to cope with losses in the years ahead. Be sure to let your child know that pain and sorrow will eventually go away, but the happy memories of their pet will stay forever.

    A Meaningful Way to Celebrate, Commemorate and Remember

    Horses are special for many different reasons. The Center for Equine Health offers a meaningful way to honor horses and the people who care for them through the Equine Tribute and Memorial Fund. Gifts to the fund can be made in recognition of special horses, people and events.

    This heartfelt giving also makes a difference in improving the lives of horses. The fund helps support the center’s mission of advancing the health, well-being, performance and veterinary care of horses. Gifts to the Equine Tribute and Memorial Fund may be made online. For more information, please contact the Office of Advancement at (530) 752-7024, svmadvancement@ucdavis.edu.
  • How to Prepare an Advance Directive for Your Horse
  • Horse Owner
    • - Create a written document that states the horse’s name, age, and physical description. If possible, include a photograph.
    • - If the horse is insured, include the name of your insurance company, the policy number, and contact information of the agent, as well as the type of policy (i.e., Major Medical vs. Mortality).
    • - Designate an emergency contact person and provide multiple contact numbers.
    • - Designate your primary care veterinarian with contact information, including a backup veterinarian if one is available.
    • - Clearly state your intentions for your horse should it be injured or become ill and efforts to reach you fail. Include details regarding referral for intensive care and a financial cap if relevant.
    • - Designate your emergency contact and your veterinarian as agents to authorize humane euthanasia in the event that you are unreachable and your horse is suffering and stabilization or transportation to a referral center are not possible or humane. This wording is personal and will depend on your circumstances. Standard protocols for insured horses will be followed.
    • - Indicate your aftercare preferences: private cremation vs. transport to rendering.
    • - Indicate if you wish to keep a memento such as a shoe or a piece of mane or tail.
    • - If you board your horse, provide your barn manager with a copy of this information.

    Horse
    • - In an emergency, make every effort to keep the horse calm and consult with your veterinarian or management while waiting for medical help to arrive. Safety is always a paramount concern.
    • - In elected euthanasia for a geriatric horse, select a quiet time of day and offer a last meal or favorite part of the daily routine. This is a personal decision and can serve as a final bonding moment.
    • - Select a location that is relatively soft and free of debris.
    • - Consider light sedation as an option to minimize stress. Your veterinarian will guide you in this decision based on the circumstances of the horse.
    • - It is important for herd mates to understand that their friend has passed and not just disappeared. This is especially true for mares and foals, and most veterinarians will leave a deceased foal with a mare after euthanasia to allow her to adjust and recognize the finality of the situation. Instincts run strong in mares and they will often wander away or back to food within 30 to 40 minutes. In the wild, death draws predators and the instinct is to move away.

    Veterinarian
    • - Schedule some time with your veterinarian or talk with him/her at a routine visit about your plans for your horse. Provide them with a copy of your advance directive so that they may retain it in their records. They will help to walk you through the process and answer any questions or concerns that you may have. Make a note to update the document yearly.
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*This content originally appeared in the October 2013 Horse Report.