The decision to end a life should never be made without careful consideration. Unfortunately, some common equine emergency situations leave little time for consideration at the time that they are happening. It is important to think in advance about the decisions you will make for an equine companion in order to limit the time it takes to either get further treatment or to end life in order to stop the suffering. It is very important that others who care for your animals in your absence are aware of your wishes as well. Many a horse has suffered unnecessarily while we tried to reach an owner for permission to transport for surgery or euthanize. When you are absent it is a wise idea to leave signed instructions at the barn describing your wishes concerning your animals.
The American Association of Equine Practitioners recognizes the following as ethical reasons to decide for humane destruction (euthanasia) of an equine:
Incurable, progressive disease
Incurable, transmissible disease
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
Whether dealing with an emergency or a long-term illness, it may be helpful to answer these questions together with others that care about the animal, including your veterinarian.
Is the horse suffering?
How much discomfort and distress can I expect this animal to handle? How much can I physically and emotionally handle?
Can I continue to endure the expense of caring for this animal? What can I give up in order to care for this animal? Will others who depend on me financially suffer if I need to continue to pay for this animal’s treatment? How will the economics of treating this animal affect my ability to do the day to day care of my other animals?
What is quality of life for this horse? Is he still eager to eat? Does he still interact as he used to with his herdmates? Does he lie down more than 50% of the time? Is he still interacting with his people as he used to?
Is the horse insured? How does my insurance company expect me to handle the euthanasia decision?
Is the horse dangerous to handle? What are the chances of a person or another horse being seriously injured by this animal?
What are the alternatives? Could I donate the horse to someone? Could she be used in research?
While considering your decision it is important to step outside of our thoughts about human life. Humans are basically project oriented and we devote a great deal of time to planning for the future. When a human life is over, we often think of all of the unattained dreams that person had. The life of a horse is different in that the future is only as far away as the bucket of feed anticipated when the barn door opens for the first time in the morning or the cross country course about to be run once in the start box. He is only really trying to fill his immediate needs and desires. He lives in the present. A horse cannot anticipate euthanasia, his last meal, or his last trail ride. When his life is taken, he loses only the present. A horse is not a breadwinner trying to save money to put his kids through college. He is not actively planning his retirement. With lactating mares as the exception, a horse does not provide for another horse’s physical well being. It may be helpful to consider these thoughts when you are struggling with a decision to euthanize.
Remember to bear in mind that ability to deal with pain or disability varies from patient to patient. A fractured pelvis in a complacent old gelding may heal with months of stall rest that a fractious yearling will not handle. A broodmare accustomed to grazing her days away and nursing foals may not mind a limb deformity, but a three day event horse accustomed to action all the time may not handle forced retirement in the same way. You and others who help care for your horse will be the best judge of how your horse is handling treatment and disability.