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How do I know it is time? Equine euthanasia
April 2005

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How do I know it is time? Equine euthanasia

Perhaps the kindest thing you can do for a horse that is extremelyill, severely injured, lame, or dangerous is to have your veterinarianinduce its death quickly and humanely through euthanasia. Your decisionto have your horse euthanatized is a serious one, and is seldom easy tomake.

What should I do?

Your relationship with your horse is special and may be differentwith each horse you have. When you acquired your horse, you assumedresponsibility for its health and welfare. Owners are sometimes facedwith making life-or-death decisions for their animals. Such a decisionmay become necessary for the welfare of your horse and your family.

Although a personal decision, it need not be a solitary one. Yourveterinarian and your family and close friends can help you make theright decision. Consider not only what is best for your horse, but alsowhat is best for you and your family. Quality of life is important forhorses and people alike.

How will I know when?

If your horse can no longer experience the things it once enjoyed,cannot respond to you in its usual ways, appears to be experiencingmore pain than pleasure, is terminally ill or critically injured, or ifthe financial or emotional cost of treatment is beyond your means, youmay need to consider euthanasia. Your veterinarian is best qualified toexamine and evaluate your horse's condition and to discuss with youpotential disabilities and long-term problems.

Because your veterinarian cannot make the euthanasia decision foryou, you need to understand your horse's condition. If you do notunderstand the diagnosis or the implications for your horse's future,ask to have them explained again. Rarely will the situation require animmediate decision and usually you will have some time to review thefacts before making one.Once the decision for euthanasia has been made, you may wish to discussthe final disposition of your horse's body with your veterinarian andyour family. Your veterinarian can provide information about burial,removal, cremation, and other alternatives.

What if the horse is healthy?

If your horse has become dangerous, unmanageable, unserviceable, ordifficult to maintain, euthanasia may be necessary. Some undesirableand abnormal behavior can be modified, so it is important to discussthese situations with your veterinarian. Economic, emotional, and spacelimitations may also force an owner to consider euthanasia for a horseif a suitable home cannot be found. Discussing all possiblealternatives with friends, family, and your veterinarian will help youfeel more comfortable with your decision.

How do I tell my family?

Family members may be aware of the horse's problems. You shouldreview the information you have received from your veterinarian withthem. Long-term medical care can be a burden that you and your familymay be unable to bear emotionally or financially, and this should bediscussed openly and honestly. Encourage family members to expresstheir thoughts and feelings. Even if you have reached a decision, it isimportant that family members, especially children, have their thoughtsand feelings considered.

Children have special relationships with animals. Excluding orprotecting children from this decision-making process because they arethought to be too young to understand may only complicate and prolongtheir grief process. Children respect straightforward, truthful, andsimple answers. If they are prepared adequately, children usually areable to accept an animal's death.

How can I say goodbye?

Saying goodbye is an important step in managing the natural andhealthy feelings of grief, sorrow, and loss. Your horse is an importantpart of your life, and it is natural to feel you are losing a friend orcompanion, because you are.

Once the euthanasia decision has been made, you and other familymembers may want to say goodbye to your horse. Spending some specialtime with your horse may be appropriate. Family members may want to bealone with the horse. Once all the necessary information is availableand the decision has been made, it is best not to wait too long beforehaving your horse euthanatized. Farewells are always difficult.

Will it be painless?

When the horse is euthanatized, death will be quick and painless. Ifthe horse is standing when the death-inducing drug is given, the horsewill become unconscious and unable to sense fear or pain while stillstanding. After the horse has fallen to the ground, unconscious, deathwill ensue.

How can I face the loss?

After your horse has died, it is natural and normal to feel griefand sorrow. For some people, spending some time with the horse aftereuthanasia is helpful. The grieving process includes accepting thereality of your loss, accepting that the loss and accompanying feelingsare painful, and adjusting to your new life that no longer includesyour horse. By understanding the grieving process, you will be betterprepared to manage your grief and to help others in the family whoshare this loss.

The stages of grief

There are many stages of grief, and not everyone experiences themall or in the same order. You may experience denial, anger, guilt,depression, and acceptance and resolution.

Your first reaction may be denial—denial that yourhorse has died or that death is imminent. Denial may begin when youfirst learn the seriousness of your horse's illness or injuries. Often,the more sudden the death, the more difficult the loss is to accept.

Anger and guilt often follow denial. Your anger maybe directed toward people you normally love and respect, including yourfamily and your veterinarian. People coping with death will often saythings that they do not really mean, perhaps hurting those whom they donot mean to hurt. You may feel guilty or blame others for notrecognizing the illness earlier, for not doing something sooner, fornot being able to afford other types of or further treatment, or forbeing careless and allowing the horse to be injured.

Depression is also part of the range of emotionsexperienced after the death of a special animal. The tears flow, thereare knots in your stomach, and you are drained of all your energy.Day-to-day tasks can seem impossible to perform. Sometimes you may evenask yourself if you can go on without your horse. The answer is yes,but there are times when special assistance may be helpful in dealingwith your loss.

Eventually, you will come to terms with your feelings. You can begin to resolve and acceptyour horse's death. Even when you have reached resolution andacceptance, feelings of anger, denial, guilt, and depression mayreappear. If this does happen, these feelings will usually be lessintense, and with time will be replaced with fond memories.

Although the stages of grief apply fairly universally, grieving isalways a personal process. Some people take longer than others to cometo terms with denial, anger, guilt, and depression, and each loss isdifferent. If you understand that these are normal reactions, you willbe better prepared to cope with your feelings and to help others facetheirs. Family members should be reassured that sorrow and grief arenormal and natural responses to death.

They may not understand

Sometimes well-meaning family and friends may not realize howimportant your horse was to you or the intensity of your grief.Comments they make may seem cruel and uncaring. Be honest with yourselfand others about how you feel. If despair mounts, talk to someone whowill listen to your feelings about the loss of your horse. Talk aboutyour sorrow, but also the fun times you and the horse spent together,the activities you enjoyed, and the memories that are meaningful.

The hurt is so deep

If you or a family member have great difficulty in accepting yourhorse's death and cannot resolve feelings of grief and sorrow, you maywant to discuss these feelings with a person who is trained tounderstand the grieving process. Your veterinarian certainlyunderstands the relationship you have lost and may be able to suggestsupport groups and hot lines, grief counselors, clergymen, socialworkers, physicians, or psychologists who can help.

Should I get another horse?

The death of a horse can upset you emotionally, especially wheneuthanasia is involved. Some people may feel they would never want toown another horse. For others, a new horse may help them recover fromthe loss more quickly. Just as grief is a personal experience, thedecision of when, if ever, to bring a new horse into your life is apersonal one. If a family member is having difficulty accepting thehorse's death, getting a new horse before that person has resolved hisor her grief may imply that the life of the deceased animal wasunworthy of the grief that is still being felt. Family members shouldagree on the appropriate time to acquire a new horse. Although you cannever replace the horse you lost, you can obtain another to share yourlife.

Remembering your horse

Death is part of the lifecycle. It cannot be avoided, butunderstanding and compassion can help you, your family, and yourfriends manage the grief associated with it. Try to recall and treasurethe good times you spent with your horse. You may also wish toestablish a memorial of some type or contribute to a charity in honorof your horse.


This information hasbeen prepared as a service by the American Veterinary MedicalAssociation. Redistribution is acceptable, but the document's originalcontent and format must be maintained, and its source must beprominently identified.

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