Equine Euthanasia; Imagining the ideal

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Written by David Shuey RVT, CHPT

Lily was an elderly Arabian mare who lived with chronic laminitis in her later years. In recent weeks, her pain had become unmanageable. Her owner called my attending veterinarian and me out to euthanize her beloved horse whom she had owned, cared for, ridden, and loved for decades. We led Lily out to a favorite patch of grass in her familiar home pasture on a bright summer afternoon. Her owner, needing reassurance, asked if we would “make it quick.” I responded that she could stay close throughout the procedure, as each step would honor her and her horse at this profound time.

We sedated Lily lightly with a little xylazine, and I blocked an area above her left jugular vein with lidocaine. When the horse relaxed a little, I placed an IV catheter as Lily’s owner stood by, petting her all the while. We deepened her sedation with more xylazine until her head dropped low and relaxed. I then held her head up while my veterinarian slowly pushed a syringe of ketamine and midazolam through the catheter. Within thirty seconds, her legs began to yield to her weight. I guided her backwards onto her haunches, and whereupon unconsciousness descended, I rolled her into lateral recumbency and placed her head gently on the grass.

We invited Lily’s owner to find a comfortable place at Lily’s head to sit and pet her and be with her in her last moments. When all of us were ready, my veterinarian pushed the euthanasia solution through the catheter, and Lily passed from this world in total peace, with no stress or fear or pain. After a time, her owner and her owner’s friend who was present for support said to us, “I never knew this could be so peaceful, so….nice.”

The horse is a companion animal. Their size, strength, intelligence, and place in our lives make them the most challenging species to care for, let alone euthanize. The bond between horse and human, because of its unique and distinctive depth and time span, requires of their caregivers an extraordinary level of skill and care.

The ideal equine euthanasia is bond-centered. Historically, euthanizing a horse with anything approaching the dignity, peacefulness, even beauty, of that of a dog or cat has been thought to be unpredictable if not impossible. The horse-human bond has suffered greatly due to lack of training, which has often forced practitioners’ discouraging clients’ presence at the death of their beloved horse. The fears held by veterinarians and horse-owners, not to mention the horses themselves, of a violent, uncontrolled, painful, and aesthetically disturbing death can be dramatically reduced, if not entirely removed, by training and practice within a few key steps of the process, as well as a well-packed “toolbox” of different methods and techniques, illustrated by the story above. This toolbox, combined with a deep sense of how the horse sees the world and its own life, as well as what the horse means to us, their human partners, allows us to honor the whole unit of care at the end of life. We are ready to forever elevate the experience for the betterment of the horse, beloved owner, and veterinary team.

David Shuey is a well-known advocate for gentle equine euthanasia and wrote the Equine Euthanasia Module for the CAETA Program.

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