By Amanda Hedges, DVM, cVA, CVSMT
“Is it inhumane to keep him alive? What would YOU do in this situation?”
Making end-of-life decisions can be difficult and emotional. Veterinary medicine and preventative care means horses often survive conditions that would result in death in the wild. By providing quality care, we also prolong our horse’s natural life expectancy. For example, most housing situations lack predators that would eat a horse that cannot keep up with the herd. We provide our horses with regular access to feed and water so they do not starve or suffer from dehydration as their feral counterparts may. By taking a horse out of its “natural” environment, we also accept the responsibility of providing a humane end for our horses. Our hope is that the following considerations will help you navigate this situation and prepare, as best as possible, for when the time comes to facilitate a peaceful passing.
Can your horse lie down safely, and does he/she lie down regularly (at least once every 2-3 days)? Does he/she lie down so much that he has bed sores/pressure sores?
Can your horse walk around? Does he/she safely and voluntarily walk around his/her enclosure? If your horse lives in pasture, can he/she keep up with the herd?
Can your horse perform basic behaviors, such as picking up and holding all 4 feet for the farrier?
Does your horse show interest in feed? Is he/she able to chew and swallow the feed you provide?
Are you able to make any feed changes your horse may need?
Are you able to medicate your horse as frequently as he/she may need?
Is it safe for your horse to receive preventative dental care?
What are your horse’s three favorite things? Can he/she still do them safely, and as regularly, as he/she would like?
Does your horse have something that he/she looks forward to (besides eating) every day?
Is your horse in pain? Refer to the Pain Scale developed by Colorado State University to better answer this question.
Can your horse’s pain be managed? Consider writing down your horse’s behaviors in a notebook at each visit to look for changes over time.
Consult with people you trust who know you and your horse. Has your trainer/farrier/barn friend noticed a difference in your horse’s attitude?
Can your horse’s condition(s) be cured? If they cannot be cured, can they be managed adequately? Can you afford the costs of medications, procedures, and/or recheck visits needed to manage the situation?
Do the good days outweigh the bad? If there are more bad days than good, quality of life questions prevail.
Emergencies: know as best as possible what you are able and willing to do for your aged horse. While it can be difficult and emotional to think about end-of-life decisions, it is far preferable to have considered how you will handle an emergency situation before it arises. It is much more challenging to have a clear and rational thought process during a veterinary crisis.
Are you aware of the cost and process of euthanasia? How will the remains be handled?
Be realistic with yourself and your situation. Honestly answer the question “What does my horse want?” with the knowledge that your emotions may make this question difficult to answer. And as always, discuss any questions or concerns that arise with your veterinarian. Except under extreme emergency exceptions, your veterinarian cannot make this decision for you. All he or she can do is do his/her best to answer your questions and support your decision. The veterinarian may be more or less involved in helping you make this decision depending on the relationship you have developed.
This is also a good article about end-of-life considerations: “Being Prepared for Equine Euthanasia" by Holly Mason, MS, DVM, published in The Horse.