Red turned 28 in the spring. For the past ten years the Bensons called him “Old Red.” If we can judge such things, Red had a good life. All the children learned to ride on him. When family stuff would get intense, Red could expect a visit to his stall from one of the kids to talk things over. Over the past year Red had started to fail. His teeth were at the gum line, and the twice a day mashes were keeping him going. One eye was blind because of a cataract, and there was one starting in the other.. At night he would occasionally bump into the walls of his stall.
It was November, and the family realized that his time had come. I was asked to lay him away before the ground turned hard. He was to be buried out back, by the stone wall, near the old pine, close to two of the family pets. We all knew that this was the thing to do. He might have made it through one more winter, but it would have been hard.
As sophisticated as veterinary medicine has become, there will always be conditions we can’t deal with. The fading horse like Old Red, the draft horse with a fractured hip, the pony so badly foundered it can’t get up. The list is long. The only option in such cases is humane destruction of the animal. The correct term is euthanasia. This is a word from two Greek roots which translate as “easy death.” It doesn’t mean easy decision or easy solution. It can mean immediate relief from incurable suffering or a lingering death.
It’s a sensitive subject. However, many people have questions about it. How exactly is it done? What does the horse feel? This article may be as emotionally hard to read as it is to write. I am doing so to help clear up some misconceptions and perhaps relieve anxieties you may have about it.
The American Association of Equine Practitioners has a document on euthanasia of horses. The acceptable methods must be quick and painless. There are many ways of killing animals, but only a few meet these two criteria.
Most veterinarians use an intravenous solution, and may give the horse a sedative first, depending on the situation. The actual euthanasia drug is a highly concentrated pentobarbital solution made for this purpose. It is injected into the jugular vein which is very accessible as it runs from behind the jaw down and into the chest. The jugular empties directly into the heart. A few seconds after injection the solution is pumped from the heart to the brain. The part of the brain that makes us aware of our surrounding is quickly affected, and usually within a minute the horse loses consciousness. There is no anxiety or pain. We know this because the drug, a barbiturate, has been used for years on people.
The horse goes down, but is unaware of doing so. Some horses sink slowly in a slow motion way, and others go down with a crash. Again, there is no awareness that they are going down. Within a few minutes the brain centers that control the heart and lungs shut down. During this period there may be some muscle twitching and slow leg movements, but the parts of the brain that perceive anxiety or pain are gone. During the whole procedure the horse has felt nothing except the prick of the needle. Veterinarians will generally stay until they have insured that the horse’s heart has stopped beating.
For decades the traditional method for the euthanasia of horses was physical damage to the brain by way of a bullet. This is quick and painless, but is objectionable to many horse owners. There are rare instances when it becomes the only way. The last time I had to euthanize a horse with a gun was over 10 years ago. The horse had a broken leg, and was so full of fear and pain that he could not be restrained or approached with a needle.
There are some dos and don’ts concerning burial. I ask owners not to dig the hole before the horse is put down. Horses are afraid of deep holes. Lead a horse near a hole and they will naturally shy. I feel that euthanasia should be as easy on the horse as possible. The best plan is to dig the hole next to the animal after he or she has been put down. Another reason is the very real issue of human safety. Remember, the horse has lost consciousness before he drops. There is no way of predicting or controlling which way he will fall. Sometimes you have to move fast to get out of the way. That in itself is enough to think about. You don’t need the added worry of falling into a hole while avoiding him landing on you. This has happened to me, and I’m not anxious to repeat the experience.
Lately there has been interest in composting dead animals. When properly done, the horse’s body is totally decomposed within 6 months. There is a science to this, and to be effective it must be done correctly. There are composting facilities in the state that offer this service. There are also facilities in Maine and other New England states that will cremate horses.
When called to euthanize a horse I often hear the comment, “this must be the hardest part of your job.” Actually, it’s not. I won’t put horses down just for the convenience of the owner. It is always because, in my judgment, the horse really needs to be released, and I feel that this is the last, kind thing that can be done for an animal in trouble.
Don’t worry about your ability to make a decision when it’s time. I can assure you that when the time does come, the decision makes itself. The actual laying away is often the only solution to a problem that has become unbearable. It is nothing to dread ahead of time. Part of being a caring animal owner is the willingness to accept responsibility for an end of life decision. When in doubt, a good question to ask is, “Am I keeping this animal alive for their sake, or my own.”
–David A. Jefferson, DVM