Last Thursday was a pretty tough day – the time had arrived. My friends 34 year old childhood pony (with whom we had shared most of our children’s pony club years) had been losing weight for a month or so and had recently lost her appetite. Her demeanour, movement and enjoyment of life had faded over the previous week; her posture and face showed constant discomfort and pain. The decision to have your horse euthanased is a serious one and not easy to make. Choosing whether, or when, to end a dearest animal's life may be the hardest decision you ever have to make. However, it may be one of the most responsible and compassionate things we can do for our horses; the kindest thing you can do for a horse that is extremely ill, severely injured, lame, or dangerous.
Sometimes the way forward for aged and ill horses is all downhill. If your horse can no longer experience the things it once enjoyed, cannot respond to you in its usual ways, appears to be experiencing more pain than pleasure, is terminally ill or critically injured, or if the financial or emotional cost of treatment is beyond your means, you may need to consider euthanasia. One of the biggest stresses can be to decide when the time has come - the time that is right for all of us - our family and our horse. Rarely will the situation require an immediate decision and usually you will have some time to contemplate and consider the circumstances and the full circle of responsibility. Other considerations are whether they are a hazard to themselves or others, is the treatment financially feasible and manageable.
Once all the necessary information is available, you’ve gathered your thoughts and the decision is made, it is best not to wait too long. Farewells are always difficult but I’ve found the mornings seem to be the least stressful time, removing the need to wait all day — often with our pain acute and intensifying, despair mounting — for the vet to arrive. It also gives space to accept the loss many hours before bedtime, helping sleep to come easier. So the time was set for Thursday morning, when Flicka would be released from her suffering to fly free again.
The final moments can be comforting choose a familiar area, be with them, show them affection and love, stand with them, talk to then, groom or rub their head or favourite spot, let them have some grass or their favourite treats. The last thing your horse will know is you and feeling loved and happy. Stand by them until you are ready to step back and let your veterinarian do what you cannot. For me, as a vet and an owner, at this point, I remain the owner and get a veterinary colleague to take over.
If you decide to stay, be aware that not all horses respond in exactly the same way. Usually a sedative is administered then a few minutes later an overdose of anaesthetic drugs (barbiturates) is delivered. Most horses experience a rapid loss of consciousness followed by cardiovascular arrest - collapsing gradually, dropping peacefully to the ground and lying still with maybe one or two deeper breaths. Others have a brief excitement response and may fall down stiffly or even try to rear over and spasm of the diaphragm can horribly like the horse is still alive and gasping for air. Although disturbing to witness, the horse is already unconscious and unaware of pain. It doesn’t mean the horse is regaining consciousness. Some continue to take occasional breaths for a minute or so, and their legs may move or make sudden twitches. And it is not unusual for minor muscle tremors, noises or twitching of the more sensitive parts of the horse (such as the nostrils and muzzle) to occur for a short time after death. In other horses, the barbiturate overdose can cause excitement and spastic motions (which is what people are describing when they talk about the animal fighting it). But remember they do not indicate that the horse is conscious or has any sense of feeling, they are simply involuntary reflexes by the body.
Barbiturate overdose depresses the central nervous system, causing deep anesthesia progressing to respiratory and cardiac arrest and stopping the heart and breathing usually within 30 seconds. However, in rare situations, they can cause sudden or violent falls. If the horse is seriously injured or in great pain, it may be difficult to attempt to inject an intravenous barbiturate with the necessary speed and 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 the response unpredictable. Rare physical reactions to the drug (which can be a hard thing to watch and an upsetting last memory) are most common when the horse is already debilitated and circulation of the drug to the brain is slow, or if the horse’s extreme pain has increased its adrenaline levels. They can also occur if the needle slips from the vein before a sufficient dose is given or if the horse is stressed by the atmosphere around it, including upset or noisy people. In these situations, the horse may stagger before falling awkwardly and still stir after it is down. In most cases the horse has already lost its sense of pain and its muscle control, the reaction passes very quickly — even though it can seem like an eternity for us. 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.
Although we may not understand how they say goodbye, paddock mates and companions can be present and are often much more settled than when a pasture-mate just disappears. Sometimes pasture-mates just wander off and graze; sometimes they smell the body just prior to burial; sometimes they run around wildly. It is also common for the pasture-mates to regularly visit or “camp out” at the grave. The body should then be left for a short period so the pair-bond can accept that the animal is dead – helping reduce distress.
The reality is that most euthanasias are quiet and peaceful events, done out of love to end a horse’s suffering when all other options have dried up.
EQUINE CLINICAL NUTRITION
Dr Jennifer Stewart