Euthanasia is a difficult subject to consider, but our aim is to help support and provide dignified end of life care for your horse.
Having any animal euthanased is a sad and traumatic time, so it is a good idea to plan ahead in order to avoid rushed decisions under difficult circumstances.
World Horse Welfare have produced a useful guide as well as an Owner’s Plan to help you prepare in advance.
Milbourn Equine would like to encourage and support horse owners to find out more about the process itself and the options available when the time comes.
When is the right time?
This can be incredibly hard. It may be that you are required to make a decision regarding euthanasia as a result of an emergency but with most horses it is usually an elective decision based on a combination of chronic weight loss and/or lameness, often associated with age. It is often difficult to say exactly when the right time is but as a guide, the primary concern should be your horse’s quality of life. This can be difficult especially if you see your horse every day and are less likely to notice gradual changes. Try and assess the following:
- Do they move freely when turned out- are they comfortable in walk, trot or canter?
- Their body condition – are they particularly thin?
- Are they able to lie down and get up again unaided?
- Are they suffering from lameness?
- Are they being left behind or bullied by the herd?
- Do they seem ‘happy’? If they are lethargic or depressed then this can be affecting their quality of life.
We have produced a Quality Of Life Questionnaire which you can use to help assess these areas and keep a record.
Remember to talk to us. Although we cannot make the decision for you, we can help discuss your concerns and hopefully offer you an unbiased opinion for the best treatment required.
Where should it be done?
Most people choose to have their horse euthanased at home or at their own yard so that they are relaxed in their surroundings. Ideally a flat area of grass is a suitable site, preferably with vehicular access.
If two horses are particularly closely bonded, it may be necessary to sedate their companion to avoid them becoming agitated. It can also be helpful if possible to take your other horse or pony to see their euthanased companion and let them sniff or graze nearby until they stop showing an interest. This can stop the companion from calling for their partner. However don’t be surprised if their companion does not show any interest as this is not unusual.
How is it carried out?
There are 2 methods of euthanasia commonly used:
This is the most common method. The horse is given an overdose of an anaesthetic drug by intravenous injection. A sedative may be given first so that your horse does not become distressed when it begins to feel sleepy. A catheter will be placed into a vein to ensure all the drug is administered smoothly. Your horse loses consciousness after the injection and slowly collapses. Their heart will then stop shortly after they are anaesthetised. Your horse is fully unconscious when they fall to the ground and is therefore unaware of their heart-stopping. Like humans, animals have reflexes that happen once they pass away, and occasionally horses can twitch or appear to gasp once they have been euthanised. This is normal and is the result of the muscles, including the diaphragm, relaxing. Your horse is unaware of this, but it can be distressing for owners if not prepared.
This method of euthanasia results in instant death of your horse. Again a sedative may be given first. The barrel of the gun is placed on your horse’s forehead. Your horse will fall down instantly and blood may pour from their nose/head. With this method there may also be involuntary movements of the horse’s legs and occasional gasps for a short period of time after the shot is made. Again this is normal and your horse will be completely unaware. Not all vets have a firearms licence to carry a gun and so this needs to be booked specifically. Whilst it may appear less peaceful to the owner it can sometimes be a more dignified end for a horse (especially one that is very needle shy.)
Should I be there?
This is a commonly asked question for which there is no right or wrong answer. Rest assured that everyone concerned will want your horse’s last minutes to be peaceful. Milbourn Equine care deeply about animals and are experienced at dealing with this sensitive task.
Some owners find watching the euthanasia of their horse provides closure for them whilst others prefer to remember their horse as they were and find observing the procedure distressing. If you are able to be calm and appear relaxed during the procedure, then your presence is likely to be reassuring for your horse. If you are likely to be visibly distressed however, then it may be better to ask a trusted friend to do this for you as anxiety will be picked up on by your horse. Your vet will require you or someone on your behalf to sign a consent form. In a yard of several horses it is obviously essential someone is there who knows which horse is to be euthanased.
Options following euthanasia
It is important to have considered the options available to you and prepared for this in advance. The options available depend on the method of euthanasia and the health of your horse at the time.
Cremation is more expensive but available regardless of the method of euthanasia or death.
We recommend Cherry Tree Pet Crematorium in High Halden run by David Funnell who provide an excellent collection and respectful cremation service. Cherry Tree can either accompany your vet or arrive later to allow you time alone with your horse to say your final goodbyes. The time of collection is always your decision.
Individual Cremation – Your horse would be collected and individually cremated. All the ashes will be returned to you in either a wooden casket or scatter basket.
Communal Cremation – Your horse would be collected and cremated with others but no ashes would be returned to you.
It is important to think about what you will wish to do with the ashes when they are returned to you as many people who have paid for ashes to be returned subsequently choose never to collect them.
Hunt kennels/disposal to the zoo
Provided your horse was not put down by lethal injection or was not suffering from a disease making it unsuitable for animal consumption, many hunts will use the carcass as food for the hounds or alternatively some equine carcasses may be taken to the zoo. Some local hunts also provide euthanasia by bullet and a sympathetic disposal service, in some cases this is a cheaper option.
You need to check with your Local Authority Office whether this is permitted. At the time of writing, DEFRA does allow the burial of pet horses at the local authority's discretion. Each case is considered on an individual basis and will depend on local watercourses etc. (Please refer to www.gov.uk/fallen-stock for further information).
After the death of a horse you are legally obliged to inform the relevant Passport Issuing Organisation (PIO) and return the passport to them within 30 days. Many PIO’s will return the passport to you afterwards if you request it as a keepsake.
If your horse is insured, it is important to be clear exactly what the policy covers if euthanasia is required. If insured for loss of use and a claim is going to be made, the insurance company must be notified in advance. With the exception of an emergency situation, the permission of the insurers is needed otherwise the claim may be invalidated.
If the horse is euthanased on humane grounds, it must meet certain criteria to satisfy the requirements of a mortality insurance policy. The British Equine Veterinary Association guidelines state that euthanasia should be carried out if ‘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 option of treatment are available to that horse at that time’. The insurers should be notified as soon as possible. They will require a veterinary certificate confirming the identity of the horse and the reason why it was euthanased. They may also ask for a post mortem.
We will charge for our visit, euthanasia procedure and the drugs we use. Our receptionist will discuss with you if you would like us to arrange a collection from Cherry Tree and also check if you had decided whether to have ashes returned to you.
It is always the horse owner’s responsibility to pay the company concerned. All fees incurred in relation to disposal are payable direct to the organisation performing this at the time of collection.
In some cases we may ask if you wish for a post mortem to be carried out. Post mortems can help determine the cause of death if your horse/pony died unexpectedly. In some situations Insurance companies may insist on a post mortem before a mortality claim is paid out.
If you have any questions or require further advice please do not hesitate to speak to one of our vets when they next visit you or contact your local branch. Our reception team can also guide you through the process and arrange for a vet to contact you to talk you through the procedure if you require.
Please feel free to ask us any question, no matter how trivial you think it might be. We want to make sure you are as fully informed as possible about every aspect of euthanasia.
It is important to consider what you will do and plan ahead so you are able to cope with any eventuality. We urge you to remember that your horse depends on you to make rational, informed decisions, often in difficult circumstances and you must ensure that the horse’s welfare is always put first. The flowchart is a useful tool to help you make these difficult decisions.
Note: Any horse’s that are put to sleep with lethal injection must be cremated, (to avoid returning to the food chain)
If you are currently struggling with a recent bereavement, then there are bereavement service which are available for help, support and guidance.
Everyone deals with the loss of their horse in different ways. There is no timescale to deal with grief and there are some excellent support networks available if you feel you would like more support. With grief, you may feel several different emotions, or mainly one. You can feel numb, guilt, anger, sadness or relief.
All of these are perfectly normal. Sharing your grief, talking about your horse and remembering the many wonderful times you shared will help enormously.