Equine Euthanasia - What You Should Know

Older gray horse.
Older gray horse.

Having good information makes decision-making easier

The euthanizing of an animal as large as a horse has some inherent problems. If the horse is seriously injured or in great pain, it may be difficult to attempt to inject an intravenous barbiturate in sufficient quantity to bring about a timely and painless death.

If the horse is in shock, circulation to the brain and heart may be impaired, making an injection unlikely to work. In all cases of euthanasia, care must be taken that the veterinarian and handlers involved are not endangered by a falling or threshing horse that may cause serious injury. Knowing what to do ahead of time is very important.

Keeping the needs of horse owners and handlers in mind, the American Association of Equine Practitioners has developed guidelines that apply to all horses.

Important questions to be asked about the horse include:

  1. Is the condition chronic or incurable?
  2. Is the prognosis for life hopeless?
  3. Is the horse a hazard to himself or handlers?
  4. Will the horse require continuous medication for relief of pain for the remainder of his/her life?

Once the veterinarian and owner have decided that the horse's condition does, in fact, make euthanasia necessary, the decision regarding the applied method is the next important step.

Methods used to "put down" a horse

In keeping with the idea that euthanasia should provide a "good death," certain methods that might be used under different circumstances in the agricultural or animal research community can be immediately dismissed.

These include manually-applied blunt trauma to the head, injection of chemical agents into a conscious animal, injection of the drug T-61, which is now banned in the United States and is considered inhumane by many veterinarians, electrocution, or the injection of a large amount of air into the circulatory system.

Methods acceptable to the horse community and people who value the humane treatment of animals include the following:

  1. Injection with drugs that directly depress the central nervous system, usually a combination of barbiturates and anesthetics, in sufficient quantity to "put the horse to sleep"
  2. A physical or functional destruction of brain tissue by a gunshot or a penetrating captive bolt gun
  3. A method that induces unconsciousness, followed by exsanguination (massive blood loss)

Each of these methods may have complications, and the veterinarian or person providing the service should be well-qualified and knowledgeable about the method selected.

Use of barbiturates and anesthetics is limited to licensed veterinarians and the drugs may be fairly costly. In addition, the horse's body must be disposed of in a way that prevents animals from gaining access to the carcass, due to the potential for poisoning if any portion is ingested.

The use of a gunshot should be reserved for individuals trained in the use of firearms, including an awareness of the potential for ricochet and who are knowledgeable about the anatomy of the horse's head.

Use of a captive bolt gun requires that the animal be properly restrained, and the person firing must know the exact placement necessary for a quick death.

If it is necessary to use exsanguination as part of the euthanasia, the large volume of blood spilled and how to dispose of it must be taken into consideration.

Once the veterinarian has confirmed the death of the horse through absence of breathing and heartbeat, and lack of corneal reflex, proper disposal of the body must take place. Rigor mortis sets in within a few hours of death and will make it more difficult to move the horse's body.

Planning ahead with your veterinarian will help ensure that the decisions you make regarding euthanasia, whether in an emergency or after a long life, will be the best for the horse and the people who have enjoyed the companionship of one of these noble animals.

Given the affection that develops between owner and horse, dealing with the horse's death can be difficult. Fortunately, local and national counseling organizations have come into existence over the past few years.

Sharing grief with other horse lovers and trained counselors can help owners, their families, and handlers move on with their lives as they continue to cherish the memories and positive experiences of having

... heard the snort of the horses as they cleared their throats, the gentle swish of the tails, the tinkle of irons as we flung the saddles over their backs - little sounds of no importance, but they stay in the unconscious library of memory.
~ Wynford Vaughn-Thomas

Dig deeperTM

To get another persepective on this difficult subject, read Putting Down Your Horse - Planning Ahead for a Good Death.

About the Author

Flossie Sellers

Author picture

As an animal lover since childhood, Flossie was delighted when Mark, the CEO and developer of EquiMed asked her to join his team of contributors.

She enrolled in My Horse University at Michigan State and completed a number of courses in everything related to horse health, nutrition, diseases and conditions, medications, hoof and dental care, barn safety, and first aid.

Staying up-to-date on the latest developments in horse care and equine health is now a habit, and she enjoys sharing a wealth of information with horse owners everywhere.