There are fates worse than death.
Humane euthanasia can be a far preferable outcome than a prolonged life in a state of chronic sub-optimal welfare. So why is it still seen as a taboo topic in the equine world?
There are often social media posts shared pleading for homes for horses who will otherwise be put to sleep and the question arises over whether the stress of being passed around from pillar to post is better than a quick and kind end, with constant changing of hands being a significant equine welfare problem in itself (Horseman et al, 2016).
Whilst the decision to end the life of another sentient species can never be taken lightly, very few horses die of natural causes (BHS), forcing most horse owners to make a difficult and heart-breaking decision at some point.
Delayed euthanasia is one of the most severe and prevalent welfare issues affecting equids, not only in countries such as the UK where we have the means and resources to conduct this humanely (Rioja-Lang et al, 2020, Horseman et al, 2016), but also in countries such as Ethiopia, where appropriate euthanasia medicines and services are in scarce supply (Pritchard et al, 2018) and many rural communities are against the practice (Gizachew et al, 2015).
There is little research into the attitudes of owners towards euthanasia and why such delays are so common. Arguably it is one of the most challenging and emotional experiences any horse owner goes through and there is a plethora of factors often affecting such a decision, including finances, attachment, peer pressure and negative attitudes to death (Horseman et al, 2016). The relationship between a horse and a human is multifaceted and complex, with most of us viewing them as our friends, family members or even as part of our identity (Schroeder, 2019) so no wonder most of us will do everything in our power to delay saying goodbye.
Even knowledge of the process, experience being present at and even administering euthanasia cannot prepare you for situations where your own emotions take centre stage. Making the decision to euthanise my last horse, Nebu, was without a doubt the hardest decision I have ever made and one that I’m not sure I will ever come to terms with.
After several rollercoaster years battling to improve Nebu’s health, when I finally made the decision to have him euthanised, there was a part of me that anticipated an element of relief afterwards. I was wrong, feeling nothing but indescribable, all-consuming grief and distress, emotions felt by most horse owners dealing with that loss (McGowan et al, 2012). I also felt guilt, betrayal, and confusion, knowing I was the one responsible for ending his life and, despite the experience being quick, humane and peaceful, I fear I will always be plagued by crippling ‘what-ifs’.
When the decision is not clear cut and straightforward, it is hard not to second guess yourself, let alone if you have a multitude of people around you all offering their opinion. This can certainly be the case with behavioural euthanasia, or in situations where the cause – be it psychological or physiological – is multi factored and you are unsure if you are really at the end of the road or, if you just tried one more thing, perhaps it would be the magical cure. I always promised my horse that I’d never give up on him, but sometimes, as my own vet said to me at the time, refusing to give up can be a welfare issue in itself.
This brings me back to the point that there are far more traumatic outcomes than a peaceful and humane death. We treasure the time we have with our animals, knowing that the downside of loving an animal is that we are likely to outlive them and will have to say the most painful goodbye.
Would we rather we said that goodbye a moment too soon, or prolonged their suffering by saying it a moment too late? Should we keep them here with us, selfishly and desperately, because we can’t imagine life without them and we can’t bear to let them go? Or should we set them free from pain and distress, even if it means that we will take on that pain and distress ourselves in our grief?
Some people say that you know when it’s time. I’m not sure that’s true, because the fact is that you can’t make an objective assessment when so many emotions are involved, there will never, ever be enough time so we will always want longer. However, we owe it to our incredible, selfless, emotional animals to give them not only a good life experience but also the gift of a good goodbye.
Years after losing Nebu, I have almost learned to live with the ache that remains, in the knowledge that he is at peace and my grief is part of who I am now. It is he who first guided me down this path that I continue to explore and so he lives on, in all the work I do for equine welfare, in this blog, and in every breath I take.
For help and support:
The British Horse Society has a Quality of Life indicator to help evaluate your horse’s health and wellbeing to enable you to make an informed decision and their ‘Friends at the end’ initiative provides support for owners having to make euthanasia decisions. Find out more: https://www.bhs.org.uk/our-work/welfare/our-campaigns/friends-at-the-end
The Blue Cross has a bereavement helpline, open every day from 8.30am – 8.30pm: 0800 096 6606, and has produced a support leaflet on euthanasia: https://www.bluecross.org.uk/sites/default/files/d8/downloads/1.H21_EUTHANASIA.pdf. Find out more: https://www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-bereavement-and-pet-loss
World Horse Welfare have a ‘just in case’ guidance booklet available for owners to order online: https://www.worldhorsewelfare.org/advice/management/end-of-life
Gizachew, A., Jaleta, H., Birhanu, T. and Subirana, J. (2015). Survey on perception of equine euthanasia among rural communities of Ethiopia. Science, Technology and Arts Research Journal, 4(2), 228-231, http://dx.doi.org/10.4314/star.v4i2.30
Horseman, S.V., Buller, H., Mullan, S., Whay, H.R. (2016) Current Welfare Problems Facing Horses in Great Britain as Identified by Equine Stakeholders. PLoS ONE, 11(8): e0160269. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0160269
McGowan, T. W., Phillips, C.J.C., Hodgson, D.R., Perkins, N. and McGowan, C.M. (2012). Euthanasia in Aged Horses: Relationship between the Owner’s Personality and Their Opinions on, and Experience of, Euthanasia of Horses. Anthrozoös, 25:3, 261-275, https://doi.org/10.2752/175303712X13403555186091
Pritchard, J., Upjohn, M. and Hirson, T. (2018). Improving working equine welfare in ‘hard-win’ situations, where gains are difficult, expensive or marginal. PLoS One, 13(2): e0191950, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0191950
Rioja-Lang, F. C., Connor, M., Bacon, H. and Dwyer, C.M. (2020). Determining a welfare prioritization for horses using a Delphi method. Animals 10(4), 647; https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10040647
Schroeder, K. (2019) Grieving the equine companion: implications for mental health practitioners, Kogan, K. and Erdman, P. (Eds), Pet loss, grief and therapeutic interventions: practitioners navigating the human-animal bond. Ch.11, Routledge: ISBN-13: 978-1138585577