Farm Ireland

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Time to say goodbye to the oldies

Euthanasia is a humane way to end a horse's old-age suffering

Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

With a life-span much shorter than humans, it is inevitable that horses will be outlived by their owners. Although not everyone will keep a horse for their entire lifetime, there is a good chance that most owners will experience the death of a horse.

Hard as it is to lose an animal through old age, it is considerably more difficult to be the one who makes the choice of ending the animal's life. However responsible and rational, owners will realise that the decision to have an animal put down is always made in the best interest of the horse. In some circumstances, euthanasia may be the best and most compassionate course of action.

However, the decision to put down a horse should never be made without careful consideration.

According to the vets at Ballybrown Equine Clinic, there are numerous circumstances where euthanasia is a reasonable and responsible choice.

The most common reasons for choosing euthanasia are:

  • Incurable, progressive disease;
  • Chronic, severe lameness;
  • Inoperable colic;
  • Foals born with severe defects;
  • Debilitation in old age;
  • Severe traumatic injury;
  • Dangerous behavioural traits;
  • Undue suffering for any reason.

In the case of an old horse, an owner must assess whether the horse's condition has deteriorated to such an extent that it no longer has an acceptable quality of life.

According to the Blue Cross, it is generally accepted that if an animal has a poor quality of life then it is the right time for euthanasia. For a horse to enjoy a quality of life it has different needs to a human, or domestic dog for example, where a relatively sedentary existence may be acceptable.

A horse needs to be able to graze or forage for food for most of the day and it needs to be able to get up and lie down unaided. It needs to be able to walk, trot and preferably canter in a field in which it can easily move around, and it also requires the company of other horses which are respectful of it and do not act as bullies.

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If it cannot do these things, or you cannot offer the facilities, then you must discuss with your vet whether it is time to say goodbye. As your old horse ages, think ahead to what you would consider an acceptable quality of life, and when the time comes you will not hesitate and prolong any suffering.

However, every case is unique and even in similar situations, the decision to euthanise an animal is highly individual.

For example, in the case of a severe traumatic injury, such as a broken leg, the animal's psychological makeup can influence the outcome. Some horses may respond better to treatment than others, some are more co-operative than others and some have a higher pain tolerance than others.

The decision to have a horse put down must be addressed from a practical standpoint, and, whether you are dealing with an emergency or a long-term illness, there are certain issues that an owner should discuss with the vet to help decide on the best course of action.

  • What is the likelihood of recovery or at least a return to pasture soundness or some level of usefulness?
  • Is the horse suffering?
  • How long will the horse experience the current level of pain or debility?
  • What kind of special care will the horse require, and can you meet its needs?
  • Can you continue to provide for the horse financially?
  • What are your alternatives?

As the horse's owner, you ultimately have the responsibility for determining your horse's fate. Your vet can provide you with medical information and help you fully understand the implications for the horse's future but your vet cannot make the decision for you.

However, in emergencies a vet may assume the responsibility for this decision, acting on an animal's behalf without the owner's consent.

For example, a loose horse that has been struck by a car on the road and is severely injured may be put down by the vet to immediately end its suffering.

The vet is required to follow his/her conscience and could refuse to put down an animal if euthanasia seems unnecessary or unjustified. The vet may choose to discontinue treatment if an owner is inhumanely allowing an animal to suffer or is unduly prolonging its death.

Horses are euthanised by one of two methods: lethal injection or a humane kill (gun). These euthanasia options should be discussed with a vet and the most appropriate method used in the circumstances. Whichever is used, a qualified professional, who has plenty of experience in this field, must carry it out.

Lethal injection

Euthanasia by lethal injection must only be carried out by a vet. If the horse is of an anxious nature, it may first be given a sedative, and then a lethal overdose of anaesthetic drugs is administered intravenously.

The horse will gradually collapse, experiencing a rapid loss of consciousness followed by cardiovascular arrest. In some instances it may be necessary to give a further dose of the lethal agent to the unconscious horse -- to stop the heart.

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. This is a natural response of the body systems and, although often a concern of the horse's owner, it is not an indication that the euthanasia has not been successful.


The horse may be given a sedative beforehand to ensure it is calm, but this can only be administered by a vet so it may be preferable to euthanise by lethal injection those animals which require a sedative.

In the interests of welfare and safety, a horse should only be shot by a competently trained person, who is licensed to use a firearm A vet, a knackerman, hunt kennel or a slaughterman can carry it out.

The horse will be shot in the forehead with a live bullet, which is discharged into the brain. This kills the horse immediately and it will fall to the ground straight away.

Some bleeding from the bullet hole and the nostrils is to be expected. The horse's limbs may make sudden twitches when it is on the ground but these are normal reflexes after death and can occur even though the animal is no longer alive.

Factory disposal

Humane destruction is also available through horse slaughter facilities, which are licensed and operated under supervision by officials and veterinary personnel from the Department of Agriculture.

These facilities dispose of horse remains/carcasses in accordance with EU and national legislation.

Horses with passports stamped 'not for human consumption' or where signed by the owner or keeper on the appropriate passport page as 'not intended for slaughter for human consumption' may not enter the human food chain.

Disposal of the horse's remains/carcass is the responsibility of the horse owner.

In Ireland, burial is no longer an option due to restrictions imposed by environmental laws (European Communities Animal By-Products Regulations 2003).

The carcass can be disposed of by using the meat for human consumption (in the case of factory disposal) or for further processing into pet food (as in the case of both factory and hunt kennel disposal).


However, if the horse has been given a lethal injection, the meat cannot be used and the options for disposal are much more limited. Rendering at an approved plant is the usual avenue for those such animals.

Proper preparation at an early stage, in consultation with your vet, will help the procedure to be carried out quickly, quietly and efficiently.

In a non-emergency situation, a horse owner should have already part planned how and where their horse should be put down. Some owners prefer to have a horse put down in familiar surroundings, with consideration also given to any companion.

From a practical point of view, there should be suitable vehicle access to the planned area, which should be away from other animals.

In certain situations, generally where one of two closely bonded horses (such as a mare and foal or two elderly companions) has to be put down, it may be appropriate to euthanise by lethal injection in the presence of the other animal. The body should then be left in situ for a short period for the partner to accept that the animal is dead. This can help avoid unnecessary fretting and distress.

It is also important to think about general safety and how to minimise access and distress to anyone who may be in the vicinity.

If it is not possible to have the horse destroyed at home, then the owner, by consulting a vet, must ensure the horse is fit to travel to be put down elsewhere.

If the horse is insured, notify the insurance company in advance so that there are no problems with claims. While the vet will provide you with any necessary documentation, the rest, such as notification, filing and follow-up is the sole responsibility of the horse owner.

Irish Independent