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Euthanasia – Putting Your Horse to Sleep

What every horse owner needs to know about euthanasia, excerpted from Hands-On Senior Horse Care, The Complete Book of Senior Equine Management & First Aid.

If you're caring for a senior horse, the inevitable thought has crossed your mind: Might you someday have to make a decision to euthanize him? If so, how will you know it's time?

Fortunately, if you know what to look for, it'll be fairly obvious. Unfortunately, emotions may creep in, causing you to second-guess yourself. Complicating the issue is the fact that, as much as you've relied on your veterinarian's guidance through your horse's life, this choice ultimately will be yours.

An Agonizing Decision
The decision to euthanize may be obvious if your horse has a fatal injury or disease and/or a condition that renders him incapable of comfort. The signposts below, as well as input from your veterinarian, will help you identify those situations.

It's when it's not so obvious that things get murky. Say your senior has a progressively worsening skin condition that's driving him crazy, and the only treatment will put him at risk for laminitis. What then? Or, he has a chronic foot lameness and the only hope of pain relief is denervation-which may render your horse pain-free, but could accelerate the breakdown process in his feet, speeding his demise? These are not easy decisions.

Your veterinarian can help you determine whether your senior horse's condition has a reasonable chance of improvement. If so, you might postpone your decision. Otherwise, set aside your emotions and try objectively to ascertain whether the balance of each day is positive or negative for him. The following guidelines will help you.


It's Likely Time If Your Horse Suffers From The Obvious:

  • An obvious fracture of a weight-bearing long bone. Even under ideal conditions most adult horses with a broken leg are euthanized, even if the owner has limitless funds and access to a top-notch veterinary orthopedic surgical team. If internal bone/joint components are exposed (and therefore contaminated), even immediate expert care usually is unsuccessful.
  • An obvious breakdown of supporting soft tissue in a long bone, such as a laminitis "sinker," or a ruptured ligament in a horse with degenerative desmitis.
  • Violent, self-destructive thrashing due to relentless pain, mental disorder, or severe loss of equilibrium due to a condition for which treatment is unknown, unreliable, unavailable, or likely to be associated with a long, painful recovery.
  • External evidence of shock: Muddy-colored, brick-red, gray-blue, or ghostly white gums, prolonged capillary refill time (4-6 seconds), heart rate at rest consistently over 80 beats/minute, ice-cold extremities, and deepening mental depression. For more information, go to "Senior Vital Signs," page 292.
  • Abdominal contents exposed and/or contaminated due to rupture or laceration of a body wall, or breaking-through at a recent surgery incision.

And It Could Be Time If He Suffers From The Not-So-Obvious:

  • Any chronic condition that fails to respond to veterinary and supportive care, resulting in relentless discomfort and loss of ability to maintain self-care skills such as eating (a priority to your horse), drinking, urinating, and defecating.
  • Any chronic condition that fails to respond to treatment and interferes with your horse's ability to stand, move without excess pain, and defend himself.
  • Any chronic condition that fails to respond to treatment and interferes with his ability to share/enjoy the companionship of other horses, a priority that to him may be second only to eating.

Veterinarians generally choose lethal injection or gunshot for euthanasia. In Europe, gunshot is the preferred method; in the U.S., lethal injection is more popular, likened to the emotional ideal of dying in one's sleep.

Method: Lethal Injection

Merciful Methods

  • If done properly, is less violent in appearance; bloodless; quiet; and humane.
  • Cons:

    • Only one type of drug-barbiturates-shuts down the brain first, before shutting down other bodily functions. Other products (such as T61 and succinylcholine) cause a heart attack or paralysis and suffocation, so are meant to be used on a horse under anesthesia.
    • Some vets don't have the license to carry barbiturates, which are classified as controlled substances. The other drugs are cheaper and safer to carry. (The licensee is responsible in case of theft or misuse.)
    • Regardless of drug, administration requires expertise: it must be given via vein or heart injection, either of which requires skill. If the needle misses the mark, the drug won't work and can cause a violent and painful reaction.
    • Prompt and proper disposal of the body is critical, either by deep burial, cremation, or a renderer. House pets and wildlife can sink into a coma after consuming relatively small amounts of tissue or blood from a barbiturate-injected body. Note: Regardless of euthanasia method, local ordinances and sanitary district laws must be consulted before burying a horse.

    Method: Gunshot

    • If done properly, it's reliable, instantaneous, externally bloodless, and humane.
    • Body disposal is somewhat less complicated than with lethal injection since no chemicals were used that could sicken or kill scavengers. However, if the horse was on any medications, care must still be taken.


    • Emotional/social stigma can make this method upsetting for witnesses.
    • In inexperienced hands, it can be unreliable, inhumane, and unsafe.

    Act of Mercy
    WARNING: This section may upset you--it's about how to put your senior horse out of his misery if he's in agony and you can't find a vet in a hurry. Despite the discomfort it may cause now, there's information here you may want to learn, in the best interest of your horse. If he were in agony due to a mortal injury or illness, and no vet could get to you-what would you do? This isn't paranoia. It's responsibility. So your horse doesn't suffer, take the time to formulate a plan for an emergency euthanasia. Since only veterinarians can legally possess euthanasia drugs, many veterinary experts suggest that the best way to carry out that plan is with a well-placed bullet. It's a practice regularly used on farms and ranches across America, and widely used in Europe as the euthanasia of choice. (If you don't have a gun, try to recruit a policeman.)

    Why A Gun?
    The emotional and social baggage of firearms on this continent may make it difficult for you to accept that a violent weapon can be used for a humane purpose. But in Europe, learning how to perform euthanasia via gunshot is part of the official veterinary curriculum. Veterinarians there are exempted from gun-control restrictions. When proper technique is employed, many veterinarians report having fewer problems with this method than with lethal injection. They say it's faster, with none of the lingering that's often evident with injected agents.

    Here's how it's done.

    • The firearm: A handgun is preferred because there's no need for other personnel beside the person pulling the trigger. The shooter can hold the horse's lead rope in one hand and the pistol in the other. (If a rifle is the only firearm you have access to, the shooter will need to recruit someone to hold the horse on a loose lead. The holder should stand behind the shooter.)
    • The ammunition: Most experts agree a .22 caliber, .32 caliber (common in Europe), 9 mm, or .38 caliber can generally be used for safe, sure euthanasia of a horse. Some say the .22 might not have sufficient velocity and mass to penetrate the skull in a very large, draft-type horse. If you have any doubt, firearms experts generally suggest a .38. To help ensure swift and certain euthanasia, and for decreased risk that the bullet will pass through the horse with sufficient energy to injure the shooter or bystander, experts recommend using a bullet that's soft-nosed (also known as a "dum-dum" bullet), hard-cast of lead, or hollow-point, rather than one encased in a full metal jacket. Most everybody who owns firearms (including a passing highway patrolman) will have one of these types of ammunition on hand.

    Placement and aim: The bullet's entry site should be the exact midline of the horse's forehead, the following distance down from the base of the forelock:

    • Very large horse (greater than 17 hands): 5 finger-widths.
    • Average horse (15-17 hands): 4 finger-widths.
    • Small horse (about 14-hands): 3 finger-widths.
    • Very small pony (less than 14 hands): 2 finger-widths.

    Aim should be at a point perpendicular to the skull at the entry site. Or, if the horse is in an unnatural position, such as twisted or entrapped, direct the aim down the neck. This will help ensure a safe knockdown and help keep the bullet from injuring a bystander.

    Unless the gun is designed specifically for livestock euthanasia (common in Europe), experts say the muzzle should not be placed directly against the horse's head. This could confine the explosion of gunpowder and gas within the gun, resulting in an explosion in the shooter's hand. Instead, it's recommended that the muzzle be held 1 to 12 inches away. (The farther distance permits the bullet to gain greater velocity before encountering bone, which is advisable if using a .22.)

    Other Safety Issues
    Keep these guidelines in mind when performing or directing an emergency euthanasia.

    • Ricochet: When performed properly, with the correct equipment and aim, there should be very little risk of ricochet. However, any witnesses should stand behind the shooter. If possible, the procedure should be done outside, away from solid surfaces that could bounce a bullet.
    • Unexpected direction of fall: On rare occasions (particularly if the bullet isn't directed down the neck), a horse will lunge forward rather than fall straight down, potentially injuring the shooter. To avoid injury, perform the euthanasia in an area where there's room to maneuver. Have the shooter aim carefully and stand off to the side. (If possible, stand uphill from the horse.)
    • Anxiety: So the horse won't spook at a hand raised in front of his face, apply a blindfold. (This may also make the act easier, as the shooter won't have to look the horse in the eye.)
    • Logistics: Choose a location where the body can be easily reached by equipment so it can be removed or buried. Rigor mortis can set in within an hour, making it next to impossible to maneuver a body through a 4-foot stall door. Tip: Positioning your horse by the shavings pile, if you have one, will provide a cushioned place for his final fall, and easy access with equipment.
    • Insurance: If your horse is covered by mortality insurance, contact your insurance company before acting. Without their authorization to euthanize, the claim may be denied.

    This article is an excerpt from the book Hands-On Senior Horse Care, published by Primedia Enthusiast Publications. To order online go to

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