Putting a horse to sleep (also known as euthanasia) is sadly something that many horse owners must face at some point when owning or caring for a horse, pony or donkey. There are many reasons why a horse may have to be euthanised, including illness, an accident, change in owner’s circumstances or because old age or a pre-existing condition has led to their quality of life deteriorating.
It is important for horse owners to be aware that due to serious injury or illness, euthanasia may have to be opted for unexpectedly in horses of any age. Dealing with an emergency is difficult enough without having to make some very hard decisions quickly and under pressure. By being prepared and understanding the processes and options available, you are making appropriate plans and this will help to make a difficult decision a little easier.
Friends at the End
Providing the right care at the end of a horse’s life is the last, and possibly greatest, thing we can do for them. The BHS Welfare Department is always willing to talk to owners about euthanasia and provide any information, advice and support that may be needed at a difficult time, with our Friends at the End support scheme.
When and why?
Every situation is different and veterinary or professional advice should always be sought. The reality is that very few horses pass away peacefully due to old age. For many horses, the decision to euthanise will need to be taken when their quality of life deteriorates. However, it is not always easy to assess quality of life, particularly if you see the horse every day.
For more help use our Quality of Life indicator to help you evaluate your horse’s general health and wellbeing. If you have any concerns for your horse always contact and speak with your vet.
Euthanasia by lethal injection
The lethal injection can only be administered by a veterinary surgeon. In some cases, the horse may be sedated beforehand. The injection consists of an overdose of anaesthetic drugs which causes the horse to gradually collapse, experiencing a rapid loss of consciousness followed by cardiovascular arrest. Occasionally the horse may take 2-3 gasps of breath following collapse and loss of consciousness. This is a common and involuntary nervous system response to the euthanasia drugs. It may take a short time (60-90 seconds) for the heart to stop, and there may be some involuntary muscle twitching or leg movement which can prove distressing to the owner. However, the horse will not be conscious during this time and is completely unaware of what is going on. The vet will monitor the horse’s pulse until it has stopped.
Once the injection is administered, the horse will tend to fall quite slowly, but this can be unpredictable meaning that the safety of the vet and handler must be considered. However, a skilled handler can influence the direction in which the horse falls. Many vets will allow the owner to hold the horse, if they wish to, while the injection is given, but will then take hold of the horse and ask the owner to stand back, giving plenty of space.
Euthanasia by free bullet
This must be carried out by a vet, knackerman, hunt kennel or slaughterman, who has a licence to use a firearm. In some cases, the horse may be sedated and this can only be administered by the vet if given by injection. The muzzle of the gun is placed against the horse’s forehead and the bullet discharged. This will euthanise the horse instantly with the animal falling to the ground. The horse’s limbs may make sudden twitches; these are normal reflexes after death and the heart will still beat for a short while even though there is a loss of consciousness. The noise of the gun shot will be of no detriment to the horse who would’ve been completely unaware as the process will be instant. Once the horse is on the ground, blood may be discharged from the wound and the amount can vary between individuals.
An equine abattoir may also be an option to euthanise a horse as owners will be paid for the carcass. However, abattoirs are not an option for every horse as many will have been signed out of the food chain (this information will be included in the horse’s passport) either at the wishes of their owner or because they have received certain medication during their lifetime. As the horse would also have to travel, it is essential that it is fit to do so.
Where and what happens afterwards?
It is important to consider the location for euthanising the horse, as vehicle access will be required. In an emergency, this may not be possible. The welfare of the horse should not be compromised in order to move them to a convenient site for euthanasia. Ideally this should be in familiar surroundings with all other horses removed. If there is a closely bonded pair, it may be beneficial after the horse has been put to sleep that the other horse can see the remains. This can help the horse understand the situation and reduce their stress levels in the absence of their friend.
After a horse has been euthanised, there are several options for the removal of your horse’s body. However, some options have limitations depending on the method of euthanasia used and the cost can vary considerably.
In Scotland and Wales only pet horses are allowed to be buried, in England a horse can be buried whether it is a pet or not. However, it is essential to seek permission from the Local Authority (usually via Environment Agency) before burying the animal. Regulations vary between local authorities, but if the site of burial is near to a water source then it is extremely unlikely that permission will be granted.
Most equine crematoriums will collect the horse after it has been euthanised. Group cremation is less expensive than individual, but an individual cremation does give the owner the option of having some, or all, of the ashes returned.
The Equine End of Life Service
The Equine End of Life Service help facilitate horse euthanasia and/or a collection service for the deceased horse, pony or donkey, utilising fully trained, professional and licensed collectors. They have a postcode search function, to see the collectors operating in your area, and provide a transparent cost for the service required.
Hunts and Knackermen
Many hunts offer euthanasia (by free bullet) and a collection/disposal service, although it is important to note that this may not be available immediately in an emergency situation. For details of your nearest hunt visit here
Local knackers will offer a similar service. The costs involved when using a hunt or a knacker will vary locally, and it is useful to investigate this before their services are needed. Some zoos and wildlife parks will also collect fallen horses, but this is only an option where the animal has been euthanised by free bullet.
Animals that have been euthanised by lethal injection cannot enter the human food chain and should not be used for animal food.
Should you be present?
Many people feel that they want to be with their horse in its final moments. Your horse will be in the hands of an experienced professional that will carry out the procedure with everyone’s safety being paramount. It may be helpful to have a family member or a friend in attendance who will also be able to stay with you after the horse has gone. The process can be distressing for the owner and the professionals involved will understand if you do not wish to be present.
Arrangements for disposal
Removing the remains from the site of euthanasia may be distressing for those who have been involved with the horse during its lifetime. It may be wise for the owner to leave before the body is removed. Vets are often willing to assist in arranging for a carcass removal.
After the death of a horse you are legally obliged to inform the relevant Passport Issuing Organisation (PIO) and return the passport to them within 30 days. Many PIOs will return the passport to you afterwards if you request it as a keepsake.
If your horse is insured, it is important to be clear exactly what the policy covers if euthanasia is required. The level of cover varies greatly with different policies and, in many cases, only a contribution will be made towards the costs involved. The rest of the expense must be met by the horse owner. If your horse is being euthanised for non-emergency reasons, it is important to contact your insurance company before you go ahead. For example, if an owner elect’s euthanasia for their horse which has a chronic condition, such as arthritis, and the horse does not satisfy the BEVA guidelines, insurance companies can refuse to pay out. There may also be circumstances where the insurance company requests that a post-mortem is completed.
If your horse has been euthanised because of an emergency, you should contact the insurance company as soon as possible afterwards. In an emergency the euthanasia of a horse should never be delayed for insurance purposes.