You are a “horse person”, so you know about that one truly special horse. He was the horse that was a friend when you really needed one, who did not judge. Maybe she’s the horse that really taught you how to ride, or was there when you needed to get away and unwind for a while. It is so hard to say goodbye to that special friend, and to face that empty stall. But it is our responsibility to take care of our companion animals and protect them from misery or suffering.
We get a lot of questions about how to know when the time is right to say goodbye, and what options there are for taking care of a horse’s body once his or her life has ended. You don’t want to imagine that the day will come, but if it does—you secretly don’t want to be the one to make “the decision”.
Sometimes it is obvious when the right time is, such as after a traumatic, irreparable incident or a bad surgical colic. More often, it is not an obvious decision and you are forced to assess the quality of life for your companion. We have our professional opinions, but this is ultimately your decision. You know your horse’s every nuance; you can read every expression and every movement—you can almost read your horse’s mind.
When people learn that we are veterinarians, they say they could never “do that”—never euthanize a horse. We are very sad each time we say goodbye to a horse for someone, whether we have known that horse well or not, and we ache inside for the person being left behind. We are asked to perform that procedure for the horse—and in many cases it is a gift to the horse–a gift that is given respectfully, with dignity, and frequently the horse is surrounded by loved ones. It is as quick and as painless as any death can be—by shutting down the brain before shutting down the other body systems.
In guiding people with this decision, we ask a few questions. First, does your horse still have the drive to eat? As the body starts to shut down, a horse becomes listless, in appetent, and they lose that shine to their eye. Second, can your horse lie down and get up again without assistance? If the horse needs to be helped up on a regular basis, at some point he or she will be down—struggling, scared and in pain if no one is there to help. Next, has your horse become so uncoordinated due to weakness or neurological disease that there’s risk of injury to the horse or you or the other caretakers? Or, does your horse have a disease that can no longer be adequately managed, such as recurring laminitis or severe arthritis?
If your horse is getting to the point where there are no days without pain, or hasn’t been able to walk down the aisle, interact with other horses for months—it’s time to consider the quality of life your horse is experiencing. We believe that when a horse loses interest in life, they lose their personality and their noble spirit. Those horses deserve compassion and a dignified ending without unnecessary suffering or fear.
These are difficult points to consider, and the decision to provide relief for your horse is a huge responsibility. If you’ve made the unselfish and compassionate decision to let your horse go, here is what to expect at the time. (Note: If your horse is insured, remember to contact your insurance company to ensure compliance with the terms of the policy.)
Each veterinarian has a slightly different protocol, but the process is essentially the same. After finding a good place to lay your horse down, we will give a sedative in the vein to relax him or her. This takes effect within a few minutes. The horse is still standing, and is usually trying to graze. We put an intravenous (I.V.) catheter into a vein in the neck, and use saline to flush out the I.V. to make sure it’s set well. After the catheter is in place, your horse is likely to be a little wobbly from the sedation. At this point, his/her body is relaxed enough for us to give the euthanasia drug. This drug is sodium pentobarbital, an anesthetic barbiturate. The drug is painless going into the vein, and it will cause unconsciousness usually within 30 seconds. When the horse reaches unconsciousness, he or she doesn’t have control over where or how they will fall, and they won’t feel anything as they land. Care needs to be taken to avoid injury to anyone in the immediate area.
The horse will stay unconscious, but will be alive for the next few minutes. The barbiturate will slowly shut down the heart until it stops beating. The horse may appear to take a few deep sudden breaths, but this is actually an involuntary movement of the diaphragm as the heart shuts down. We will then check a reflex of the eye and listen to the heart with a stethoscope to ensure that the horse has passed, and we’ll tell you when that has happened. Many people take a small section of their horse’s mane or tail as a keepsake, or maybe just sit with their horse for a while.
There are some uncomfortable logistics to consider and arrange for when your horse’s life has ended. Legally, the body needs to be removed within 24 hours. More importantly, you do not want pets or wildlife to consume any amount of the drug used for the euthanasia.
Most clients make arrangements ahead of time with a renderer (livestock removal service) to have the body taken away, or they make other arrangements to have the body buried. Rigor mortis will set in within an hour, so if the euthanasia wasn’t done in a wide open space, the body will need to be moved immediately—usually with a fork lift or tractor. (The renderer does not generally provide this service.) Livestock removal companies require payment at the time services are provided. We recommend having the payment ready ahead of time, so that you have the option of leaving when the renderer arrives. Most rendering services use a truck and large stock trailer that require space to turn and maneuver in order to back the trailer up to the body. A winch is used to pull the body onto the trailer.
The renderers in this area transport the horses to a cremation facility in Rockford, and several horses are cremated at the same time. The ashes are then spread on agricultural fields as fertilizer. Private cremation can be arranged, with the ashes returned to you to keep, bury, or spread as you wish.
Some people ask about the possibility of burial of the body on their own property. In Illinois, each county has its own regulations for burial of livestock, partly because of varying water tables throughout the state. Check with your county for specific information. If it is allowed in your county, Illinois statutes dictate that the burial location must be more than 200 feet from a stream or well, the site must be more than 200 feet away from any residence, there is a limit on the number of horses that can be buried in the same location (less than 3000 pounds within a radius of 120 feet), and the same site can’t be used more than once every 2 years. Additionally, burial depth needs to include at least 6 inches of compacted soil to cover over the uppermost part of the animal, making an effort to prevent erosion and disturbance by wildlife or machinery. Legally, the abdominal cavity of the horse needs to be punctured to aid in decomposition, and lime or other chemicals can’t be used to slow down decomposition. Horse carcass composting or open burning is not legal in Illinois.
We know this topic is disturbing for many horse owners, but some people prefer to know what to expect before the time is near. You may have questions that aren’t covered in this article—please feel free to call us at 630-365-5600 or send us an email at FVEP@FoxValleyEquine.com.
We hope this article finds your horses healthy, and that the time to make these decisions is far in the future.