Euthanasia and Carcass Disposal in Horses

By Deidre M. Carson, BVSc, MRCVS & Sidney W. Ricketts, LVO, BSc, BVSc, DESM, DipECEIM, FRCPath, FRCVS.

euthanasia-1Horses are kept for many different reasons including athletic competition, breeding, pleasure riding and companionship. In return for companionship and occasionally financial gain, the owner is responsible for providing food, water, shelter, exercise, protection from illness and injury (as far as possible) and treatment, when needed, from a veterinarian, farrier, equine dentist or other suitably qualified therapist. Another aspect of horse ownership, that is often neglected until the last minute, is what needs to be done when the time comes to the end of its life and either passes away or requires euthanasia, i.e., ending life electively in a controlled and humane manner.

What is euthanasia?

Euthanasia is the elective (by deliberate and reasoned decision) ending of a life.

When might my horse require euthanasia?

Many horses live well into their twenties, a small number even longer. At some stage in their lives the time may come when the effects of old age, disease or injury become so severely debilitating that a decision as to what is best for the horse must be made. You will know when your horse or pony is no longer enjoying life or his or her quality of life has deteriorated intolerably. Your veterinarian will help advise you on the basis of his or her previous knowledge of and current examination of your horse or pony. As an animal owner your ultimate responsibility is to ensure that your horse or pony does not suffer needlessly and is able to pass away with dignity. This is often a sad and traumatic time and it is worth giving some thought to the practicalities of dealing with this event before it actually occurs. Your veterinarian can give advice on whether or not the time has come to have your horse put down.

How is euthanasia performed for horses and ponies?

There are two routinely used methods of euthanasia

1. Lethal injection.

This method may only be used by a veterinarian. The horse is given an intravenous (jugular vein in the neck) injection of an anesthetic or similar drug or combination of drugs that result in its death. The horse becomes anesthetized (and therefore unconscious) to such a degree that its heart stops beating and death follows. If it is used then the carcass must be disposed of either by burying (see below) or cremation. It cannot be used for human consumption or animal food.

2. Shooting (free bullet or captive bolt).

This method can only be used by a licensed veterinarian who has a license to possess and use a firearm for this purpose. With the horse held carefully in a bridle (without a browband), in a suitably safe and private environment, a free bullet or captive bolt is fired into the forehead of the horse, from a specially designed pistol, in a standard position and direction. The horse falls unconscious to the floor immediately and the lungs and heart fail soon, but after a variable period, afterwards. The horse bleeds, sometimes profusely, from the head wound and this should be anticipated when selecting an appropriate site. If this method is used then the carcass may be used for animal food, for example at those hunt kennel that remain, or can be disposed of via the normal channels (see below). This is the method used at equine slaughterhouses.

How do I dispose of my horse's carcass?

All horses, when they die, must be disposed of immediately with very few exceptions and they must be delivered to a premises approved for proper collection and disposal of animal carcasses. Where a post-mortem examination is required (e.g., to determine why or how the horse died and/or to determine the nature or severity of the disease processes that led to euthanasia being performed) the carcass must be delivered without delay to a suitable place for this to be performed by your veterinarian or to an appropriate equine pathology laboratory. Carcass disposal can often be arranged through your veterinarian.

In some, usually high horse density areas, private businesses and/or veterinary practices have their own disposal service. Your veterinarian will advise you on this.

In areas where hunts are still active, a local hunt kennel may perform euthanasia, collect and dispose of the carcass of a horse, provided the horse had not received certain drugs prior to death.

Under recent legislation, horses and ponies kept for commercial purposes cannot be buried. Some local authorities may provide exemptions on the grounds that your horse or pony was kept as a pet. If you wish to bury your horse or pony you will need to contact your local authority to find out if they will allow you to do this.

It is not easy or pleasant to consider the natural passing of a cherished horse or pony but it may be even worse to contemplate the decision to have them put to sleep. Therefore, it is helpful to make enquiries and to ascertain what services are available to you in your area and how to access them should the need arise. Your veterinarian will act as your first point for information.

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