End of Life
Domesticated animals fall into two categories, food producing animals and companion animals. EU law considers horses to be food animals, but in the UK we do not. To us they are athletes, companions, pets and occasionally large lawn mowers. Unfortunately, more than any other companion animal, owners of horses are the ones who have to decide when it is time to make that heart breaking decision. A recent study indicated that only one in eight horses die suddenly, many of the remainder are euthanased either as an emergency or as an elective decision.
If you have an older horse, this is without doubt the most difficult decision you will have to make on behalf of your horse. We are sometimes asked to assess horses and here are a few points to bear in mind:
- The lifespan variation in horses is enormous. We see some horses looking old at 20 years but the oldest horse (pony) we have seen at Intake Vets was 54 years old. Try not to look at the overall age of your horse; quality of life is more important
- We often get owners that are worried about their horse being lame. Lameness is not automatically a welfare issue. Many older people have aches and pains and some are limping (lame). However, the majority of them will still have a perfectly reasonable quality of life and we certainly do not consider euthanasing them.
- We would urge owners to put the horse first. When owners are unable to bring themselves to make the decision to call it a day, this is when we start to see welfare issues. As vets, we are not completely removed from the process – we have to make the same decisions with our own animals.
There are two conditions to consider if you have come to the decision to call it a day:
Should you be there?
This is an entirely personal choice. Many people want to be there at the end out of respect for their horse and also to make sure that they know it has gone well. Horses are very sensitive to human emotions, so if you feel you will be too upset, this may transmit negatively to your horse and potentially make them more agitated. There is nothing wrong with saying goodbye to your horse and leaving completely before the euthanasia.
Should we presedate?
Again, this is a personal choice but I would strongly advise you are guided by us in this matter. If you have an especially fractious or needle-phobic horse we would likely advise an oral sedative to try and avoid any unnecessary stress for you or your horse.
If, for instance you choose to have your horse put to sleep using a bullet then we would recommend using some ACP tranquilizer. This means the horse can be led anywhere and will be quieter but will still be aware of their surroundings. If you have a fractious horse and did not want to use the shooting as a method of euthanasia, we would use a stronger oral sedative so the injection can be administered without any undue stress for the horse.
How is it done?
The three options are basically injection by a vet, a pistol shot by a vet or a captive bolt gun by a collection company.
- Lethal injection: The drug of choice for euthanasia by injection is a combination of a very powerful sedative and a second drug that causes the heart to stop. Normally, the vet will inject the drug over about 15 seconds. Your horse may start to breathe differently and then stagger back a few steps before falling down. There may also be a few minutes of involuntary muscle movements and twitches and they may take some deep breaths as the body shuts down. Vets opinions vary on pre-sedation before injecting as it can make things smoother but may produce a slower onset of euthanasia.
- Pistol: this is in fact an excellent method from a welfare point of view. The horse has no premonition and does not know what a gun is. It is instantaneous and overall has less chance of mishaps than an injection. However (and it is a big however), it can appear more dramatic to someone who has not seen it before. It is very sudden and the horse goes down quite hard. There may be violent leg contractions for a few seconds before the horse settles. There is usually some blood but occasionally there can be a lot of blood from the nostrils. That being said, if your horse is needlephobic this may be the kindest way.
- Captive bolt guns fire a bolt into the horse’s skull and then retract it. Normally, to ensure the horse is properly dead, a rod then inserted into the skull to destroy the brainstem. This is not nice to watch. Captive bolt guns do need to be held against the head so they are not appropriate for nervous or headshy horses. As a practice, we do not generally use captive bolts on horses.
What happens next?
Under current legislation, horses must go into the national large animal collection system. The body is picked up and taken to a centralized cremation point irrespective of which company you use. Moving a dead horse is practically difficult and although we will always try and respect the animal, it is impossible to get the body onto a vehicle with absolute dignity. We strongly advise you are not present for this part!
There are several different companies in this area which offer a range of services at variable costs. Below are just a few that we have had experience with.
The Pet Crematorium: Offer an individual collection service and return of ashes if requested. Timings of collection can be prearranged. Contact number: 0191 373 5551.
Lawlors ABP: Also offer an individual collection service if arranged and will return ashes if requested. Timings of collection can also be prearranged. Contact number: 0845 619 2880
Ireland’s: Also offer an individual collection but with group cremation only. Timings of collection can also be prearranged. Normally this will be coordinated by us but the number if you need to contact them directly is 0191 236 3515.
Warrens: This is usually group collection (i.e. there may be other dead horses or farm animals in the collection vehicle) and also group cremation only. Collection is dependent on the companies’ routes that day, so same day pickup is often not practical. Contact number: 01388 488 215.
We pride ourselves on the continuity we offer loyal clients and many of the horses we euthanase, we have known for many years. It is often a big moment for us as well. We frequently get asked if it is the worst part of our job. If it goes well, it is definitely not. Ideally we want to offer a clean, dignified end to a long, good life. We hope that we can offer our horses better end of life care than many humans are allowed. As owners and vets, we have the responsibility and the right to decide when enough is enough and we must shoulder that responsibility.