Caring For Horses At the End of Life

An older gray horse looking worried.
An older gray horse looking worried. Anastasija Popova

Newsdate: Tuesday, November 28, 2023 – 11:30 am
Location: DAVIS, California

Horses occupy unique positions in our lives, and losing them is heartbreaking. They deserve dignity in death as well as in life, and doing what is best often involves difficult decisions. Gathering information and making plans ahead of time can reduce stress for you and your horse when the time comes.

Two horses with signs of aging walking in a green pasture.

Two horses with signs of aging walking in a green pasture.

While health is an important aspect of defining a horse's quality of life, it should also include emotional or psychological discomforts such as fear, anxiety, boredom, frustration, loneliness, and depression.
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“Even when we know our horse is approaching the end of life, we are never prepared for the loss,” said Dr. Claudia Sonder, Director Emeritus of the Center for Equine Health. “The turmoil of having to make difficult decisions under pressure can open the door for self-doubt and regret.

Walking through the end of life plan with your veterinarian in advance ensures a mutual understanding of quality of life signals, your hopes for those last moments, and a review of the logistical concerns of aftercare.  One of the greatest gifts for a horse is a gentle exit to a life well lived.”

When Is It Time?

There are different reasons to consider euthanasia, or the humane termination of life. Sometimes the decision is in response to an emergency. Other times it is due to chronic and progressive conditions that worsen over time.

General humane endpoints include the development of conditions that result in untreatable excruciating pain, a 20% decrease in normal body weight, or the inability to reach food and water. Justification for euthanasia for humane reasons should be based on medical considerations and quality of life issues for the horse.

Quality of life is a uniquely individual experience. While health is an important aspect of defining quality of life, it should also include emotional or psychological discomforts such as fear, anxiety, boredom, frustration, loneliness, and depression. Conversely, pleasure derived from physical contact, eating, social companionship, and mental stimulation is relevant as well.

Owners often fear that they will not know when it is time. However, most have a threshold at which point the decision becomes more obvious. “Horses are prey animals and their social awareness is key to their survival from an evolutionary perspective,” said Sonder. “They are aware of their herd mates and seek cues to understand the safety of their situation.

One of the greatest gifts we can give them at the end of their life is confident leadership. I ask my clients to consider that approach as a final gift to their friend.  The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. There is a sense of pride in summoning that strength when they need it the most.”

Disposition of the Remains

Practical considerations, such as how to dispose of the horse’s body, can be particularly challenging when dealing with loss. Make these arrangements ahead of time if possible. There are often local regulations regarding disposal procedures. Rendering, burial, and cremation are common methods, but may require special regulatory approvals.

If your horse is euthanized at a veterinary hospital, you may elect to have a necropsy performed to reveal the cause of death and contribute to science and education.

The Grieving Process

Keeping horses happy and healthy is a team effort that includes trainers, riders, grooms, veterinarians, farriers, and others. All of these providers can experience grief from the loss of a horse. The stages of grief associated with human loss, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, can occur following the loss of a horse. Some may also feel guilt, relief, isolation, withdrawal, and loneliness. Pet loss programs or counseling can offer support. Pet loss resources, including a support group, are available through the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

See complete article including How to Prepare an Advance Directive for Your Horse  HERE 

Article by Amy Young - Press release by Horse Report

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