Horse & Hound

Time to go

The toughest decision is often the kindest with an elderly or infirm horse. Kieran O’Brien MRCVS offers advice on making the hardest call

- H&H

RECENT research found that less than one in 10 horses die of natural causes. For the remainder, a conscious and often agonising decision to end the animal’s life must be made by the owner.

A critical illness, such as incurable colic, or a major irreparabl­e injury will carry an inevitabil­ity which eases the decision-making process. In the case of an old or infirm horse who is slowly but progressiv­ely declining, however, the call must be made in cold blood.

Often, owners want us, as vets, to nudge them towards a conclusion. This is not difficult if the horse is clearly suffering, yet in more marginal cases a frank conversati­on must be had in which together we weigh up all aspects of the horse’s life – both now and in the future. Euthanasia may then be decided upon or postponed until a later date. But the horse’s welfare must come first; when his life is becoming a burden, it is time to act.

We can objectivel­y assess a horse’s quality of life by asking the following questions:

• Is his life reasonably normal?

He needs to be able to graze for most of the day, to get up and lie down unaided, and to walk and trot easily in the field – in the company of other horses who are respectful and do not bully him.

• Is he maintainin­g body weight?

A gaunt, angular appearance is often part of the ageing process. If a horse is correctly fed and provided with rugs or shelter in cold weather, however, he should still have reasonable fat and muscle cover.

Failure to maintain body condition in old age usually reflects significan­t dental disease. Uneven, worn out or missing cheek teeth can make it difficult for a veteran to chew hay; in some cases, he may stop eating it altogether. Such a horse may show cyclical changes in body weight, gaining condition in summer and autumn when grass is easily chewed, but losing weight over the winter while principall­y living on hay.

There are now many special soft feeds that allow horses with dental disease to thrive, if they are fed in a sufficient quantity based on nutritiona­l advice. Failure to gain or even maintain body weight, despite this, is an ominous sign and may herald irreversib­le decline.

Other causes of weight loss in elderly horses include parasitism and Cushing’s disease. The latter can be treated with medication, but in some cases this may cost more than the owner is able or willing to spend.

Incurable cancer affecting the abdomen or chest can cause subtle but progressiv­e decline. In the later stages, this may be accompanie­d by other signs such as coughing, loose faeces or recurrent colic.

• Is he in pain?

Although “stiffness” is regarded by many owners as a benign and inevitable consequenc­e of old age, most elderly horses are stiff because they have joint pain. Consequent­ly, many show a life-changing improvemen­t

when given painkiller­s such as phenylbuta­zone (bute).

Signs of arthritis in an older horse include variable lameness, a reluctance to have his feet held up by the farrier, unwillingn­ess to lie down and difficulty in rising after periods of recumbency. These are often more obvious in the winter months, when an arthritic horse is typically less active – standing immobile while sheltering from wind and rain or eating hay while at pasture, and stabled for part of the day. If he is still being ridden, short days and bad weather can mean less exercise.

Arthritis is a progressiv­e disease and physical issues may eventually respond poorly to medication. Repeated difficulty in standing up should prompt urgent considerat­ion of ending the horse’s life. If ignored, he may be found unable to stand after a long, painful struggle and must be euthanised in situ.

A PEACEFUL END

THE term “euthanasia” derives from the Greek words for “a good death”, since it brings relief from pain and is carried out in a way that does not in itself cause additional distress. Horses are humanely destroyed by shooting, or more commonly nowadays by lethal injection. A vet may give the horse light sedation to allay any stress.

Shooting is highly effective if done skilfully (by a vet, hunt kennelman or knackerman, with a firearms licence) and death is instantane­ous, although there may be significan­t bleeding from the nostrils. The lethal injection most commonly used is a combinatio­n of an anaestheti­c and a drug that causes cardiac arrest. The process is slower and less traumatic to witness. The horse sinks to the ground unconsciou­s after about 30 seconds, and within a further two minutes his heart will stop – enabling the owner to give him a final hug and say a few words of farewell.

It is understand­able to feel apprehensi­ve about being present. Since this anxiety may be communicat­ed to the horse, it may be wise to say goodbye beforehand and then depart, leaving a trusted friend to assist.

If the horse was closely bonded in a pair, allow the remaining companion to approach and sniff the dead body, where practical, leaving him to spend time with it if he wishes. While some bereaved horses will then happily lead a solitary life, others will require a new friend. Ideally, introduce a companion to the pair a week or two beforehand so that the three form their own herd.

PLANNING AHEAD

MAKING a euthanasia plan well in advance will ease the emotional burden when the time eventually comes. Talk to your vet about the technique and its implicatio­ns, and consider disposal of the body and the associated costs.

You may decide that the body will be taken away by fallen stock operators, for rendering or incinerati­on, or to use a hunt that offers a casualty recovery service. Some owners arrange to keep all or part of the ashes or to bury the horse on private land, where legislatio­n permits. Research the options so that you understand the logistics involved and can budget accordingl­y.

Many of us form particular­ly strong bonds with our treasured companions and are heartbroke­n when we lose them. Whether the end comes suddenly, or after some difficult decision-making, being prepared will make it easier to give your horse the good death that he deserves.

 ??  ?? Difficult decisions often need to be made at this time of year ahead of a long, cold winter, when a veteran horse may struggle to maintain a high quality of life
Difficult decisions often need to be made at this time of year ahead of a long, cold winter, when a veteran horse may struggle to maintain a high quality of life
 ??  ?? Uneven teeth often lead to cyclical changes in body condition, as the horse loses weight in winter when he is more reliant on chewing hay
Uneven teeth often lead to cyclical changes in body condition, as the horse loses weight in winter when he is more reliant on chewing hay
 ??  ?? Joint pain in veteran horses is often due to arthritis, a progressiv­e disease which may eventually respond poorly to medication
Joint pain in veteran horses is often due to arthritis, a progressiv­e disease which may eventually respond poorly to medication
 ??  ?? Think about the preferred method of euthanasia in advance
Think about the preferred method of euthanasia in advance

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