Euthanasia and horses
No one likes thinking about having to put their horse to sleep, but sadly, euthanasia - also known as having a horse ‘put to sleep’ or ‘put down’ - is something all horse owners and keepers have to plan for.
Many horses do not die from natural causes, and so owners need to think about what they will do when the time comes. This guide will help you to consider what options may be available and help you to make decisions about your horse's death.
No horse should have to go through unnecessary pain or distress and euthanasia can prevent your horse from suffering. Having to put your horse to sleep is never an easy decision to make and it can also be very upsetting for you as an owner, even when you know it is the right thing to do.
When to plan for your horse's euthanasia?
If you don't yet have a plan for your horse's euthanasia, we recommend taking some time to think about it as soon as you can.
If your horse develops a long term illness you may have a bit more time to consider your options; but if your horse suddenly falls ill or is involved in an emergency situation, it's likely you won't have much time at all to think about the emotional and practical implications of your horse needing to be put to sleep.
You will need to consider:
- Where you would like your horse to be euthanised, and what the circumstances may allow
- How you would like your horse to be euthanised, and by whom
- Who to contact in an emergency
- Costs involved, including any insurance cover
It's important that all horse owners know the options available and the procedures involved, so that you can make a fully informed decision and act in the best interests of your horse.
When is the right time to put a horse down?
It can be difficult to know when the time is right for euthanasia. Sometimes it may be obvious that your horse is in distress and suffering, but if your horse has gradually declined, it may be less so.
There are a number of reasons why a horse may need to be euthanised including:
- old age, when their condition has deteriorated to such an extent they no longer have an acceptable quality of life
- serious injury
- a disease or illness that cannot be treated
You should always talk to your vet and other professionals if you're concerned about your horse's health or welfare. Your vet will be able to offer advice on any potential treatments or euthanasia.
The final decision though will be yours. You know your horse best, and you will make the right decision for them when you consider your horse's best interests. Talking to your family and friends will help you to consider your decision and get support. Even though you know you have made the best decision for your horse, it is never an easy decision to reach.
What to look out for in your horse
When your vet visits, you may hear them talking about your horse's 'quality of life'. This is a term vets use to understand how much animals are now able to enjoy their lives and carry out normal behaviours without pain or suffering.
Signs that your horse may not have an acceptable quality of life include:
- not being able to graze or forage for food for most of the day
- not being able to get up and lie down unaided - this is so they're able to have a proper deep sleep (REM)
- not being able to walk and trot, and preferably canter
What if my horse dies suddenly?
Some horses do die from natural causes. Although you won't need to put your horse to sleep if this happens, you will still need to arrange for their body to be buried or collected. For more information on planning for the practicalities of this, see below.
Sadly, horses can and do suffer from unexpected fatal accidents, or those that mean they need to be euthanised quickly. Having a plan in place for these emergency situations will make them much easier to cope with from an emotional and practical point of view.
In life we don't always know what is around the corner. A sudden or unexpected loss, can leave us feeling shocked and struggling to cope.
If you've experienced the sudden loss of your horse and are struggling to come to terms with this, our free Pet Bereavement Support Service is here to support you through this time.
Should I stay with my horse during euthanasia?
Whether or not you wish to stay with your horse while they are put to sleep is entirely your choice, but it may depend on the euthanasia method chosen. Someone will need to stay with your horse to hold them, and it may be comforting to know that you were with them at the end.
What if I can't stay?
Try not to feel guilty if you do feel unable to watch. If you are upset or panicking then this may upset your horse as they're very sensitive to our emotions.
The professionals involved will understand if you do not wish to stay. If it's likely to be too upsetting, it's OK to say your goodbyes and leave your horse in the capable hands of the professionals.
The British Horse Society also has a scheme called Friends at the End which ensures that no horse owner has to face the loss of their equine companion alone.
How is euthanasia in horses carried out?
Horses are euthanised by either:
It's a good idea to discuss the options for euthanasia with your vet before you make your decision. They will advise you on the options available to your horse. Bear in mind that these may be decided on by your horse's circumstances, and unfortunately you may not always be able to choose the method you would prefer.
Regardless of which method is used, euthanasia must be carried out by a qualified professional.
Horse euthanasia by injection
Only vets can legally carry out euthanasia by injection. The process is as follows:
- Anxious horses might be given a sedative first
- A lethal overdose of anaesthetic drugs is then administered intravenously (through a vein)
- The horse will collapse gradually, experiencing a rapid loss of consciousness followed by the heart stopping
- In some instances, it may be necessary to give a further dose of the lethal injection to the unconscious horse, to stop the heart
- The vet will remain with your horse until they have died, and any natural reflex reactions have ceased.
You may see some minor muscle tremors, noises or twitching of your horse's more sensitive parts (such as the nostrils and muzzle) for a short time after death. This is a natural response of the body system and, although this may be worrying as an owner, your horse is not in any pain while this is happening – they will have already passed away.
Horse euthanasia by gun
In the interests of welfare and safety, this method of euthanasia should only be carried out by a trained, competent person, who has a licence to use a firearm. The procedure can be carried out by a vet or by other licensed individuals:
- The horse may be given a sedative beforehand to ensure they are calm. The sedative can only be given by a vet, so it might be an option to consider a lethal injection while they're there.
- The gun is placed against your horse’s forehead and a bullet is then discharged into the brain. Your horse will fall to the ground straight away, and a trained vet should be there to make sure your horse's heart has stopped beating before being moved. Although this type of euthanasia can be upsetting as an owner, it will also mean that your horse passes instantly.
- The horse’s limbs may make sudden twitches when they are on the ground; these are normal reflexes after death and can occur even though the animal is no longer alive
- Some bleeding from the bullet hole and the nostrils may happen, though it can range from a slight trickle to a strong flow. Placing horse shavings on top of any discharge and leaving it for a short time is the best way to clean this up. Just be sure to safely dispose of the shavings afterwards.
You might want to keep a cutting from your horse's mane or a horse shoe to remember them by.
Where should a horse be euthanised in a non-emergency?
In a non-emergency situation, it's often less stressful for your horse if they're put down in familiar surroundings. If you have other horses nearby, you should also consider their welfare.
If you have closely bonded horses, you may plan to euthanise your horse by lethal injection with the other horse present. Their body can then be left where it is for a short period so that your horse can accept that their companion has passed away. This can help avoid unnecessary distress.
If it's not possible to have your horse put to sleep at home, you must ensure your horse is physically and mentally fit to travel. A vet will need to confirm that your horse is capable of travelling, as both you as the owner and the vet must comply with the law.
Generally, only horses that are used to loading and travelling, and are fit and calm enough to, should be transported to an unfamiliar place to be put to sleep. Horses should also only travel short distances in these cases and close attention must be given to their welfare during transport.
Other practical advice on horse euthanasia
- Ensure there's suitable access for any machinery or vehicles that may need to get to the area, which will need be away from other animals
- Think about general safety and how to minimise access and distress to anyone who may be nearby. Have a tarpaulin, rug or blanket to place over the body if there's likely to be a delay between euthanasia and collection.
- Consider any other horses nearby, and any that will be left on their own following the euthanasia of your horse
- Preparation early on will help euthanasia to be carried out quickly, quietly and easily
- It's a good idea to discuss your plans with a vet, as they will be able to offer advice and understanding at this difficult time
- If your horse will be euthanised with a gun, do let others at the yard/in the area know beforehand (where possible) as the sound can be distressing
Where should a horse be euthanised in an emergency?
In an emergency where euthanasia is the humane option – for example a serious accident, injury or illness – your horse will need to be put down without delay and you may not have time to choose a preferred location.
Bear in mind that in some emergencies, someone other than you - such as your yard manager - may have to make the decision to have your horse put to sleep to end their suffering.
Planning ahead for emergencies, even when your horse is fit and well, will make this situation easier to cope with should it happen. Make sure your yard manager is aware of your preferred euthanasia plan in case something happens and you cannot get to your horse in time. World Horse Welfare has a useful Just in Case Owner Plan that can help ensure your wishes are followed should your horse need to be euthanised in an emergency situation and you can't be reached.
How can I support my children through pet loss?
For children it can be especially upsetting as it may be their first experience of death. Children need support even if they are not outwardly upset.
Talk to them honestly about what is happening and, as far as possible, involve them in the decision making.
More on children and pet loss.
Will my other pets feel loss?
Like humans, horses can also show signs that could be interpreted as grief, although we can't be sure it's the same as our grief.
Horses are very sociable, so it's important to think about their welfare during this time and companionship for any surviving horses.
Arrangements for disposal of your horse
After your horse's death, you'll need to arrange for the disposal of your horse’s body. It's best to think about the costs, the methods of euthanasia and what's available in your area beforehand.
If your horse was euthanised by injection or had been given other drugs, the options for disposal are cremation, incineration or burial (subject to certain legal restrictions).
A private cremation can be arranged so your horse's individual ashes can be returned to you or scattered in a memorial garden at the pet crematorium. A vet should be able to tell you where the local pet crematorium is located.
Horse owners will need to confirm in advance if they wish to have an individual cremation – this option may not be possible at short notice if the horse has been put down in an emergency – it can also be expensive (approximately £900 for individual cremation with ashes returned).
Communal cremation, where your horse is cremated alongside others, may be an option too and this is usually cheaper than individual cremation (around £300 for communal cremation where no ashes are returned. It may also be possible to receive communal ashes, but these won't be your horse's ashes only). Speak to the pet crematorium about all available options.
The law on burying your horse depends on where you live in the UK and whether they were a pet. The government's website recommends contacting your local trading standards office and the Environment Agency for more information. The National Rivers Authority and the environmental health department of the local authority will also need to be contacted.
If burial is your preferred option, it's really important to make sure you plan in advance as approval from your local authority can take time, and they may place certain requirements on the location. If you are allowed to bury your horse you'll also need machinery to dig the grave and move your horse. Typically, your horse's body will need to be covered by at least one metre of earth, but check with your local authority for their requirements.
In some cases, it might be more practical to have your horse collected by a fallen stock collector. They will charge around £200 to collect your horse's body once they've been euthanised.
They'll take them away and dispose of the body, usually by incineration.
All insurance companies will require confirmation that a horse has been euthanised and the reasons for doing so. Most policies ask for a veterinary certificate, and some for a post mortem in a small number of cases.
In non-emergency situations, it's essential to contact your insurance company before if you plan to make a claim on your policy, to check that the grounds for a claim are covered.
- With a ‘loss of use’ policy, the owner’s insurance claim may be prejudiced if the horse is put down without the agreement of the insurance company
- With a ‘humane destruction’ policy, insurers should be advised immediately, or as soon as possible
Is it normal to feel upset?
It's completely normal to feel upset. It'll be hard at first but take each day as it comes, try to treasure your memories and talk to family and friends about it.
The first thing is not to feel embarrassed about showing your emotions. It takes time to get over the loss of a loved one, and, although reactions differ, you may feel a mixture of things, such as:
Though it's natural, try not to feel guilty or blame yourself – the decision for euthanasia is taken with your horse's best interests at heart to avoid them suffering.
Some people find themselves questioning whether they did the right thing. It is normal to feel some doubt, though this will ease in time.
What if no one understands?
Sometimes family, friends and colleagues who themselves have not experienced a special relationship with an animal may not understand what you're going through, so it can be helpful to talk to someone who understands your feelings.
We're here to help you through your grief with our free Pet Bereavement Support Service. We're here seven days a week with trained volunteers who have themselves experienced the death of a pet. Don't hesitate to call or email us.
What can I do to remember my horse?
There are lots of things you can do to help remember your horse. You could:
- ask the vet if you can keep some of their hair
- perform a ceremony, like a funeral, with all those who loved knew your horse
- create a memorial for your horse
- make a scrapbook of memories
- write a goodbye letter
- write a poem or short story talking about your life with them
- share your loss with others who have been through it
- become a volunteer and help others through their loss
How we can help
Sometimes it helps to share your feelings with someone who knows from personal experience how distressing the loss of a horse can be, and who will listen with compassion and without judgement.
We also have a Facebook group if you'd like to join a community of people supporting each other through their grief.