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Editorial: Humane Euthanasia Needs To Be a Viable Option

End-of-life considerations need to be part of every horse owner’s plan and budget, Kristen Kovatch argues. She outlines the realities of cost of euthanasia and the guidelines for when it should be considered.

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No one wants to think about the end.

It’s a tough subject. Most of us would rather enjoy our time with our horses now — beautiful creatures who live entirely in the present, encouraging us to live in the present with them. We don’t want to cast a shadow over our time with our beloved horses, whether that’s for training and competition or companionship, thinking about the end of their lives.

But these tough subjects need to be tackled, and it’s our responsibility as horse owners to have a plan in place. Humane euthanasia and disposal must be considered a viable option — both logistically and socially.

The realities of euthanasia and disposal

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) names three methods of euthanasia as acceptable for horses when performed correctly:

  • barbiturate overdose, administered intravenously by a veterinarian
  • gunshot to cerebral hemisphere and brain stem
  • penetrating captive bolt

I’ve personally witnessed two of these methods with horses over the years — again, this is an eventual reality of horse life for those of us choosing to center our lives around these animals. With intravenous injection, horses fall unconscious, and brain function is shut down, causing death. This method is minimally painful to the horse in most cases (there are rare occurrences of  barbiturate reaction) and the drug acts quickly.

Euthanasia by gunshot, when done correctly, is a painless and immediate death, though it may appear traumatic to observers. The horse I observed that was euthanized by gunshot by the hand of his experienced and respectful owner did indeed pass instantly and without any apparent pain. This method must be performed by a knowledgeable individual.

Penetrating captive bolts act similarly to gunshot when performed correctly to bring about immediate and painless death. Again, all of these methods must be performed correctly by experienced individuals to be considered humane euthanasia. Veterinarian euthanasia fees range case by case; our local large animal vet normally charges $125 for the farm call plus administration of barbiturate.

Once a horse is deceased, what do you with the body? Stark reality: horses are large, and there are often state or local laws controlling their disposal. Here are the most common methods:

  • Burial
  • Landfill
  • Cremation
  • Rendering
  • Composting

Burial works well for horse owners with enough land to dig a roughly 7′ x 9′ trench deep enough to have 3′-4′ of dirt over the carcass — this is usually the general requirement by most states or municipalities for livestock burial. Owners without access to large equipment may need to rent, costs for which may range from $250-$500 according to the Unwanted Horse Coalition. Depending on individual state laws and proximity to water, horses euthanized by chemical injection cannot be buried.

Some landfills accept livestock carcasses; some may accept livestock but not horses, some may accept horses but not those euthanized chemically, while others may not accept livestock at all. Costs for landfill disposal may generally range from $80-$150.

Cremation may be an option for owners seeking to memorialize their horse and want ashes returned, but cremation costs are often quite high. An average horse may cost upwards of $1,000 to cremate, and costs are often based per pound.

Rendering is a process by which carcasses are “cooked” to kill pathogens, creating products that can be used in animal feed or other applications. Rendering companies used to pay owners for carcasses, but now it’s the other way around, and owners must pay the rendering company the fee for removal. Some rendering companies still provide euthanasia service via gunshot or captive bolt, as not every company will take an animal that has been chemically euthanized. Rendering companies may be limited in service area; fees can vary from $75-$200.

In research for this article, I called four different rendering companies, and none of them serviced my geographical area.

Composting is not legal in all areas, and requires space as well as organic materials to work correctly. Simplified, composting requires the carcass to be covered in vegetative material so that internal temperatures in the pile reach at least 130 degrees F. Over nine or 10 months (or longer), the body is broken down by bacteria and the materials can be used for soil supplementation. Local laws may not allow for large carcasses to be composted.

The reality of euthanasia and disposal: the process may not be cheap. If you have land, equipment and local laws allow, a horse can be buried on your property to keep disposal costs low. On average, however, the Unwanted Horse Coalition estimates that the cost of euthanasia and disposal of a horse is around $385. For some, that’s not a big expense; for others, it may be, especially as individual costs may be higher.

Making the decision to euthanize

The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) has published a set of guidelines to help owners decide when euthanasia should be considered to end a horse’s suffering. These are not set-in-stone criteria, but should be viewed as helpful information to help owners make decisions. Among the guidelines:

  • A horse should not have to endure continuous or unmanageable pain from a condition that is chronic and incurable.
  • A horse should not have to receive continuous analgesic medication for the relief of pain for the rest of its life.
  • A horse should not have to endure a lifetime of continuous individual box stall confinement for prevention or relief of unmanageable pain or suffering.

Again, these are simply guidelines, not “rules.” Individual cases with their own nuances and details may have other outcomes.

There’s an additional guideline not mentioned by the AAEP that in my personal opinion should help guide owners’ decision-making: there should be no expectation that a horse owner needs to bankrupt themselves in pursuit of procedures or therapies to treat a horse in pain. Before an owner totally exhausts their own resources, euthanasia should be respected as a viable option.

Let me unpack this a bit, as it’s likely to be an unpopular opinion: horse owners should do what they can to treat a horse in pain, including diagnosis. Somehow, in the age of social media, there’s a growing trend in the court of public opinion that no horse should be euthanized if there’s a glimmer of hope that it may get better, even if the existing options are expensive or risky surgeries or a lifelong regimen of costly treatment or medicine with mixed outcomes for pain management. It seems to be popular now to “shame” owners who make the decision to humanely end a horse’s life that faces an uncertain future.

But what options might those owners face? We’ve all seen the horses at rescues who wound up there because they need costly care and their owners were unable to afford it; rescues are strapped for funding and there’s a limited pool of donation dollars coming in. There simply aren’t enough homes available for horses who will be “pasture sound.” What good does it do the horse world if an owner puts every last dollar into treatment or therapy with no guarantee of success and then have no resources left to continue?

This is not a defense of euthanizing a perfectly healthy horse because an owner is no longer interested in paying for his care; this is a discussion of euthanizing an injured, lame or ill horse with a poor prognosis for a happy, pain-free life, especially if an owner’s budget is limited.

In reading Esther Roberts’ series on rescuing auction horses, I had to speculate: if we lifted some of this growing stigma over euthanasia, would we keep more horses out of the pipeline? If we educated more owners about making an end-of-life plan and encouraged owners to set aside money to cover those expenses, could more horses go gently from this world at home without the stress of running through a “kill sale” or going through a horse rescue?I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I believe that we should always respect an owner’s choice for humane euthanasia.

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