Euthanasia -
How Do We Know When?

By Eleanor Blazer

         A friend asked, "How can I know if I should put her down?"

         Any animal experiencing intense pain with little hope of recovery should be euthanized.  It is the humane thing to do.

        Many pet owners believe animals are not aware of the future - only the present.  If this is true, animals in intense pain, with only some hope of recovery, may also need to be euthanized.  Owners need to be prepared to make the decision based on how long the animal will be in pain, if quality of life after recovery will be comfortable and if they can afford the cost of treatment and future care.

        We are all different in regard to how much suffering we can handle.

        Watching a horse deal with intense pain for hours (or days) is very difficult.  If pain killers are giving the horse some relief, and it is known the pain will subside soon, then euthanasia may be avoided.

        You must determine how long to let the horse suffer, especially if the pain killers are not providing relief.

        Quality of life must be considered.

        Once the pain is controlled the question must be asked, "What kind of life will the horse enjoy?"  This question also applies to horses that are not in pain, but may lead a compromised life.

       Horses that must be assisted up after lying down may be candidates for euthanasia.  Arthritis, weakness or a neurologic disease are some of the causes for losing the ability to stand unaided.  It is up to the horse's care givers to decide if the horse is in pain and if they want the responsibility of being constantly available to help the horse stand. 

       A horse that is down and can't get up risks complications or death.  If the incumbent horse is not aided quickly dehydration sets in, internal organs cannot function properly, the digestive system shuts down, muscles become hard and nerves can be damaged.  If the horse is struggling he can injure himself.  

       Wanting to stand and be mobile is a horse's instinct.  The inability to stand is a detriment to the quality of life.

       An older horse with poor or no teeth and a compromised digestive system should not be allowed to slowly starve to death.  Horses are designed to eat forage.  Dental problems which do not allow a horse to chew hay and an aging digestive system will lead to decreased intake of nutrients. 

      The inability to move due to pain or other physical problems can lead to starvation and dehydration.  The horse cannot move to eat or drink.  He may not be able to compete with other horses for feed offered to a group.

      If the horse's caregiver does not have the money to buy special feed, have the time to feed multiple meals or have room to keep the horse separate from others, then the horse's quality of life is being compromised.

      Reoccurring illnesses such as pneumonia, colic and laminitis need to be addressed.  Are the illnesses reoccurring quicker than normal?  Is the horse recovering fully before the next onset?  Is the quality of life decreasing?

       With advances in equine medical care we can prolong life.  But is it humane?  Are we only putting off the inevitable to spare our own feelings?

       If the horse owner is willing to assist the older horse when needed, administer supportive medications, provide feed which can be utilized and a safe area, then one last thing must be considered-the will to live. 

       Observation is the key to recognizing the "will to live".  The first sign is usually showing no interest in feed.  The favorite treat is refused; the nicker in the morning is absent.  There is a loss in interest of what is going on around the barn.  The horse will sometimes stand off by himself in a depressed state.  Despite medical treatment, special feeds and constant care, it may be "time".

       Selling an old horse, giving him away or sending the horse to a rescue center may be options to euthanasia, of a refusal to face responsibility.

       The question should be, "What is best for the horse?"

       Every situation is different.

       Because of worsening arthritic pain, trouble eating, maintaining weight and other health related issues, my friend decided to have her horse humanely put down.

       It is hard, but our animal companions deserve to be treated with love and dignity.

        Proper nutrition and management practices can prevent many problems associated with caring for horses.  You can learn how to provide your horse with a better life-style by taking the online course "How to Feed for Maximum Performance" taught by Eleanor Richards Blazer.

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