Medical advances and increased knowledge of equine health and disease have led to better care and increased longevity for many horses.  When illness, debilitation and suffering increase gradually over an extended period of time, it may become difficult to recognize when it is appropriate to relieve suffering.  Euthanasia decisions are rarely made easily, but contemplating the decision, consulting with your veterinarian and settling on a plan in advance of having to act can make it less painful and provide optimal care for your horse.

Justification for euthanizing a horse for humane reasons should be based on both medical considerations as well as quality of life issues for the horse. Although not a replacement for consultation with a veterinarian, the following situations should be considered:

  • Incurable, progressive disease
  • Incurable, transmissible disease
  • Chronic lameness
  • Inoperable colic
  • Foals born with serious defects
  • Debilitation in old age
  • Severe traumatic injury
  • Dangerous behavioral traits
  • Undue financial burden of caring for a sick or incapacitated horse
  • Undue suffering for any reason

You can find information on the guidelines for equine euthanasia on the Veterinarian’s for Equine Welfare website.

Your veterinarian will be able to guide you in making this determination, especially regarding the degree to which the horse is suffering.  Each case should be addressed on its own merits, as individual horses differ from each other as much as human beings differ from each other.

Pentobarbital combination is the most commonly administered form of acceptable euthanasia in this country.   Gunshot is sometimes used by authorities in an emergency when a horse is suffering.  If done properly, it can be humane and immediate; however, a horse’s brain is surrounded by a lot of bone, therefore the gun has to be placed absolutely correctly by someone who has been trained.  The benefit of this form of euthanasia is that the drug pentobarbital is not involved, which renders the body safe for the environment in the instances of appropriate burial or compost.

There are often local regulations regarding disposal procedures of an equine carcass. Common methods of disposal are rendering, burial, cremation and composting which may require special permit or approval. A veterinarian can help you decide on the best disposition.  Learn where to have your horse humanely euthanized, buried, cremated or rendered.

You can find additional information in the brochure, Equine Euthanasia: How do I know it’s time?, published by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Some opponents of legislation to end horse slaughter like to equate horse slaughter with humane euthanasia. Nothing could be further from the truth. Horse slaughter is a horrific process that involves immense cruelty and animal suffering. It is not humane euthanasia. To quote Veterinarians for Equine Welfare:

“It is the united opinion of VEW that horse slaughter is inhumane, and that it is an unacceptable way to end a horse’s life under any circumstance. One need only observe horse slaughter to see that it is a far cry from genuine humane euthanasia. From the transport of horses on inappropriate conveyances for long periods of time without food, water or rest to the very ugly slaughter process in which horses react with pain and fear, no evidence exists to support the claim that horse slaughter is a form of humane euthanasia. Rather, it is a brutal process that results in very tangible and easily observable equine suffering.

We believe that it is an unethical and dangerous practice for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) to attempt to equate horse slaughter with humane euthanasia.”

From “Horse Slaughter – Its Ethical Impact and Subsequent Response of the Veterinary Profession”, by Veterinarians for Equine Welfare (2008)

Veterinarian-administered euthanasia via chemical injection brings a peaceful end to life. Normally, a veterinarian can come to the horse’s home so that the animal can be in familiar surroundings with loving caretakers there or nearby. Some vets will pre-sedate the horse before administering a lethal dose of Sodium Pentobarbital, which brings a quick, painless death.  The average cost of having a horse humanely euthanized by a veterinarian and its body disposed of is approximately $250 – a virtual drop in the bucket when it comes to the overall expense of keeping a horse. This cost is simply a part of responsible horse ownership.