The Horse Euthanasia Decision

Recently, I attended a public event where a horsewoman approached me and asked if she could talk to me about a sensitive subject.? She seemed rather sheepish and withdrawn about asking me the question, but when she finally got a bit of privacy, I was surprised at what she had to say.? She told me the story of her 16-year-old warmblood gelding that had ringbone.? Although He’s perfectly happy and sound in the pasture, neither love nor money can make him sound under saddle.? This? woman tried everything short of a pastern-fusion surgery in an attempt to make this horse sound enough to ride.

It seemed clear from the long list of therapies that she had tried, that even though he is pasture sound, he won?t be able to be ridden again.? Her question basically came down to: How do you tell your veterinarian that you want your horse put to sleep’

Admittedly this isn?t a light topic, but it’s one that many veterinarians report to be having with clients on an increasing frequency.

Literally meaning ?kind passing,? euthanasia is a gift that is bestowed only on the veterinary profession. Why a gift’? Because it gives us a way to relieve animals from suffering and pain that can’t be remedied to an acceptable degree by medicine or management.

This honored practice isn?t taken lightly by the profession.?? Veterinarians receive training in ethics, and we take with us real-world experience from each terminal case, which helps us to mold a working philosophy about euthanasia.? In most cases, veterinarians use euthanasia when an animal is in pain and has little to no hope of recovery.? In other words, we turn to euthanasia when a case indicates a medical necessity for it.? But, as economic hardship continues to take its toll, veterinarians are increasingly being confronted by owners inquiring about euthanasia for other reasons.

Although we’re all furthest inside our comfort zone when we euthanize horses that are suffering from an obvious painful and incurable condition (i.e. broken leg, end-stage colic), it doesn’t necessarily mean that clients and veterinarians are unethical for exploring the option in other cases.? Take, for instance, the warmblood described earlier.

The owner, who had spent thousands of dollars over many years trying to make her horse usable, is now experiencing a financial hardship on top of recognizing that she now doesn’t own a horse that she can ride.? Not that riding is everything, of course, as companionship counts for a lot when it comes to the human-animal bond. But at what cost’? Beyond what a person can actually afford’

The fact of the matter is that circumstances like divorce or job loss, sudden or forced relocation (such as foreclosure), and owner health crises are frequently associated with owners exploring the option of euthanasia.? Beyond these, euthanasia may also come to mind when a horse is lame or unable to be ridden for other reasons (such as dangerous behavior).

With the horrors of horse transport and slaughter in Mexico on the forefront of conversation in the horse world, owners are reluctant to relinquish control of their horse for fear of what may happen to it.? The last thing any of us want is to make arrangements for a horse only to later learn that it ended up neglected or abused.? For these reasons, some owners would prefer to put a horse to sleep rather than risk the horse ending up in a bad situation.

One thing is for sure: No matter which circumstances play into the decision to euthanize, each case should be decided individually.? No ?blanket policy? can apply here.? it’s up to the horse owner and their veterinarian to discuss each case and determine if euthanasia is a justifiable option. Read Explore Your Options First

As veterinarians, we respect the circumstances that each of our clients is experiencing.? We’re sensitive to people?s beliefs, and we try to abide by client wishes.? However, we take euthanasia seriously.

We must maintain our oath and practice good medicine, which means that there must be satisfaction in our minds that an ethical standard is being met when we decide to euthanize a horse.

Understandably, the topic of euthanasia pushes most people to the limits of what they can logically contemplate, especially since all living things are geared to thrive, persevere and survive.? Therefore, veterinarians don’t fully expect horse owners to be able to articulate their thoughts in relation to this subject.? However, owners must be candid with us.

Remember, we must consider all the factors of each case in order to make an ethical decision.? Take time to arrange your thoughts and explore your feelings about euthanizing your horse.? What factors are making you consider it, and is there anything that you have done or can do to mitigate each factor in order to eliminate it’ (See sidebar.)

In an ideal world, all horses would live long lives and lay down and go to sleep on a sunny day in a pasture with knee-deep green grass.? But since that luxury is only afforded to a few, we must respect the unique option of euthanasia. Use it if, and only if, it is truly needed.

Grant Miller, DVM, Contributing Veterinary Editor

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!