Equine Euthanasia – Optimising Welfare

Equine Euthanasia
Optimising Welfare
BHS Welfare Officers Meeting, Durham 2012
Why euthanasia?
• Euthanasia basically means ‘good death’
• Old or diseased animals should be given the benefit of a
good death to avoid suffering, where appropriate
• It is not seen as acceptable in this country to allow
animals to essentially die of starvation due to ‘old age’
and veterinary attention or euthanasia is required
• Owners must take responsibility for preventing suffering
by euthanasia, even if they find it difficult
Why euthanasia?
In times of recession
• In some cases the decision to euthanase is clear cut
• In other cases there may be a difficult decision to make,
particularly with an older, retired horse because:
It may be possible to avoid suffering in some older horses for
example by
treating dental problems,
ensuring worming is done correctly
and supplementing feed or using total hay replacer
ensuring adequate weather protection – shelter / rugs.
However these measures may be considerably more expensive
than the management which may have been sufficient when the
horse was younger.
Attitudes to Euthanasia
• Some people feel guilty when they cannot afford to
provide an elderly horse with expensive management
• Others will have no qualms about having a horse
euthanased, rather than keep a retired horse
• Some people are greatly affected by other people’s
opinions (and we all know horsey people have plenty of
those) and others are not
• Vets dealing regularly with horses are quite used to
attitudes varying from the commercial, to the beloved pet
which the client wants to keep alive to the point where
they have to be advised that welfare is becoming an issue.
• Vets are particularly used to dealing with euthanasia on a
regular basis and need to be aware we may have different
attitudes to those of the general public
Euthanasia Decisions
If ?
By what method?
• These decisions are interlinked and therefore must be considered
briefly when considering options for method of euthanasia
If? – The Vet’s Role
• It may surprise you how few decisions to euthanase , vets are
involved in.
• The majority of cases where we are asked for our advice are
whether an animal requires immediate or urgent euthanasia
for catastrophic illness or pain such as
• (surgical) colic
• Fractured leg and other major orthopaedic injuries
• Painful conditions where treatment is unsuccessful, prolonged or
very expensive such as some cases of severe laminitis
• Inability to rise
If? – The Vet’s Role
• The number of young and middle aged horses that require
euthanasia due to medical (as opposed to surgical) conditions
is not that great and therefore it is difficult to make
generalisations about how decisions are made
• The older horse
In many cases of older horses we will either have been called in
earlier – when an elderly horse started to lose significant weight or not at all
• Older horses losing weight may commonly have dental
problems, liver or other organ dysfunction, cushings disease
or combinations of the above and some cases may improve
with treatment and dietary change and others may not
• Even in these cases, once diagnosis and treatment have been
attempted, often the owner will make a decision on
euthanasia themselves when the horse deteriorates
If? – The Vets Role
• Complications caused by Insurance –in brief:
• Many horses are insured for death - including euthanasia on
humane grounds – there is a legal definition of this and a pay-out
on the value of the horse will only be applied if the horse had to
be immediately destroyed and no other treatment options were
• This means that (commonly) colic surgery or other (possibly
expensive) treatments must be provided rather than euthanasia
even if the horse is not insured for vets fees, if a pay-out is to be
• A post mortem is usually required and the owner is liable for the
cost of this
Why? – implications for methods
• In emergency situations where horses have to be
euthanased immediately on welfare grounds, it
is usually necessary to call a vet who must
provide emergency cover 24/7.
• In this situation carcass disposal options may be
reduced, for example if the horse must be put to
sleep by injection, or in a field.
• Horses being euthanased because they are
diseased or very thin, will often not be suitable
for slaughter for human consumption
At home
• Usually least distressing
option for most horses
• Site needs to be
accessible for carcass to
be picked up. Need to
contact disposal
company for details
• Incurs cost for carcass
pick-up (unless hunt
kennels will pick-up for
• To slaughterhouse, hunt
kennels, knackers yard
(or vet premises)
• Horse must be fit for
transport (+/consumption)
• Becoming more common
as cheaper option
• Possibly most important to consider in old weak horses that
may be experiencing difficulty rising – if possible avoid
leaving until horse is stuck down in field as logistics of
carcass removal can be more complicated, more expensive
and distressing
• In general owners with old horses like ‘give them the
summer’ on grass and aim to make a decision on
euthanasia before winter sets in – again best not to leave
too late
• Plan for disposal in conjunction with making appointment
with vet, if vet is to euthanase horse. Vets usually try to be
flexible and give specific time appointments for euthanasia
Planning for Euthanasia
• Owners or their agents will need to investigate local
options for carcass disposal
• The horse’s temperament and whether it is used to being
handled may need to be considered – if in doubt seek
veterinary advice
Euthanasia Methods
• By injection
Vet only
• Using a free bullet gun
• Captive bolt
• At a slaughterhouse only
Injectable euthanasia
• Somulose
• The most commonly used
• A barbiturate anaesthetic – secobarbital
• And a local anaesthetic – cinchocaine
Secobarbital anaesthetises the horse so that it is unconscious, then
cinchocaine stops the heart - blocks conduction of signals in muscle
and nerve cells.
The two drugs are given in combination (come mixed, in the same
Other drugs for injectable
• Barbiturates alone - Pentobarbitone
• Commonly used before somulose licensed
• Large volumes required
Injectable euthanasia method
• The jugular vein is used in almost all cases
• Most veterinary surgeons insert a catheter (canula) in most
• The horses are usually sedated slightly and a small quantity of
local anaesthetic is inserted under the skin over the jugular
before the catheter is inserted
• Then the euthanasia agent is injected through the catheter
Why use a catheter?
• A catheter is used to try to ensure that the whole dose of the
drug is delivered into the vein rather than partially under the
skin, and helps ensure it can be delivered quickly enough,
without having to check that a needle is still in the vein
• A catheter helps ensure that should more drug be required
after the horse has gone down, that access to the vein is
readily available, even if the horse is not in an ideal position
for venepuncture
Why use sedation?
• Sedation is used to help in catheter insertion but also
produces a more aesthetic euthanasia by keeping the horse
calm and allowing the anaesthetic drugs to work correctly,
without excitation reactions
Injectable euthanasia - logistics
• Injectable euthanasia preparation takes perhaps
5-10 minutes to sedate horse and insert a
• After injection is done the process (with
somulose) takes 35-45 seconds to collapse and
2-3 minutes till the corneal (eye) reflex is gone.
• During this time the vet would listen to the heart
to check that has stopped or is slowing in a
reasonable time
Somulose - Aesthetics
• Usually with somulose there is minimal muscle tremor
although some horses will gasp - usually once or twice only
• Occasionally there can be delayed death with normal
collapse – in this case a further dose delivered quickly
should stop the heart
• Therefore if the heart continues to beat for a period after
collapse I will deliver a further dose (better safe than sorry)
• The horse is anaesthetised and still at this stage, and
therefore the owner can be reassured that there is no
• In my experience owners are usually not distressed as there is no
outward sign of life and a catheter allows ease of delivery of further
drug without fuss.
Injectable euthanasia Aesthetics
• In conclusion – euthanasia by injection is often the most
aesthetic method
• It can be used safely in confined areas such as stables
• Most vets will use somulose - the technique is simple,
does not involve multiple syringes and is relatively
reliable for safe and aesthetic collapse
• Although there is no perfect method of euthanasia
problems with somulose are relatively rare and are
usually not distressing as the horse is anaesthetised and
Cost Implications
• Injectable euthanasia tends to be relatively expensive
• Veterinary surgeon only (charge for visit and
• Somulose and sedative drugs are not cheap (at least
£60 added)
• Horses euthanased by injection cannot be fed to hunt
hounds due to high toxicity of drugs
Euthanasia by firearm
• A free bullet gun should be used in horses as captive bolt pistols
are not powerful enough to be reliable
• The horse should fall immediately to the ground and are often
still but in some cases there will be vigorous involuntary muscle
• Many veterinary practices have vets with firearms licenses
although not all
Problems of euthanasia by
• There is a risk of ricochet injury to humans if the correct angle
and position of entry are not achieved therefore an enclosed
space can be dangerous
• In rare cases pithing is required if the brain and brainstem are not
destroyed by the bullet – this is not very aesthetic (to say the
• In almost all cases there is copious haemorrhage which may not
be acceptable to the owner
• In head-shy horses sedation (and therefore a veterinary surgeon)
may still be required
• According to UK police guidance a clear distance of 2km in
direction of shot is required for safety, with no dwellings vehicles
or animals. However this is not often adhered to and a barn of
straw or hill behind may be substituted.
Advantages of euthanasia by
• Reduced cost compared to injectable techniques
• The carcass can be fed to dogs and in this case euthanasia
disposal may not be charged for if a local hunt is available- not
always easy to find a hunt that disposes of horses these days
• Cost of euthanasia is often included in cost of disposal where
fallen stock disposal companies euthanase and pick up carcass
Euthanasia of difficult horses
• Very needle-shy horses which cannot be sedated intravenously
present a challenge for injectable euthanasia and may require
euthanasia with a firearm
• Intramuscular and oral sedation techniques prior to injectable
euthanasia are not usually appropriate as they will affect the
efficacy of euthanasia agents – more complex techniques utilising
anaesthesia may be possible in extremis but would be expensive.
• Intramuscular sedation prior to shooting is an option in difficult
• Unhandleable horses requiring urgent destruction from a
distance, when they are still mobile (running away) are highly
unlikely, but may require the services of a professional marksman
– vanishingly rare situation outwith feral populations
Options for carcass disposal
• Fallen Stock Disposal companies (the knacker
• The Local Hunt – carcass fed to hounds
• Pet Crematorium
• Bury carcass at home
• Live transport for slaughter for human
consumption – only if passported and have not
had phenylbutazone and some other drugs
Fallen stock disposal
• These companies usually employ slaughtermen
who are able to shoot horses and will remove
the carcass at the same time
• However – some slaughtermen have more
experience with handling and shooting horses
and with handling horse owners than others,
and this method may not be suitable for all
• These companies will also pick up horses
euthanased by a vet
Fallen stock disposal
• Owner pays for carcass to be removed and it is usually
• Local companies differ as to how aesthetically this is
• Most companies pick up on large wagons which are
likely to contain other carcasses and will not be able
to enter fields – hard standing is required for the lorry
and the carcass is winched onto it via a wire secured
around the neck
• Some companies in some local areas have a specialist
driver/vehicle which is smaller and may be able to
enter fields if ground conditions are good enough. A
winch and wire around the neck are still used
Local Hunt Kennels
• More difficult than it was historically to find hunt kennels that
will dispose of carcasses
• Carcasses fed to dogs - so must be shot and any medications
recently received by the horse should be discussed with
kennelsman before booking euthanasia
• Often able to pick up carcass from home but may accept
horses being transported to their premises for euthanasia
Pet Crematorium
• Horses are incinerated individually
• Most expensive option
• In most cases euthanasia by a vet will be necessary as these
companies don’t usually have staff which shoot horses
Can be more acceptable carcass pick-up for client as individual
small vehicle usually used (no dead animals already on vehicle)
and can be more accommodating in picking up animals from
fields and enclosed spaces
• Different carcass options available
• Individual cremation with ashes back
• Casket options
Burying carcasses at home
Allowed in some local authority areas for pet horses
Permission is required from the local authority
Must not be near a watercourse – advice from local authority
Owners must be aware that even small ponies will require
mechanised digging equipment!!!
• Injectable euthanasia or firearm may be used for animals to
be buried
Slaughter for human
• These animals must be transported alive for slaughter at a
slaughterhouse licensed to kill horses for human consumption
• Because horse meat is not traditionally eaten in the UK there
are currently only 3 slaughterhouses of this type in the UK –
two in the West of England and one in the North
• It is not necessarily easy for the individual horse owner to
utilise this as a method of disposal and in general a
middleman who buys horses for slaughter is usually involved
Slaughter and Passports
• Horses to be slaughtered for human consumption must have
been passported (including a microchip for all new passports)
within the first 6 months of life or before December 31st in the
year of birth, whichever is later
• This is to try to ensure that the animal will not have received
any drugs which cannot enter the food chain before being
• Section IX part II must not be signed – Signing this section
precludes the horse from human consumption and means
that medicines do not need to be recorded
• Horses that have received phenylbutazone (bute) at any time
cannot go into the human food chain as it can cause blood cell
abnormalities in sensitive people which can be fatal. There is
therefore no safe minimum concentration of bute in meat
Attitudes to slaughter for human
• This option is often not considered by pet owners for obvious
reasons but commercial and other horse owners may consider
that this is a humane option for unwanted horses.
• This may be an alternative to trying to salvage some value from
the horse by selling it to a dealer. Some dealers may or may not
be reputable, and could sell an animal which is not able to
perform the work that is required of it, to an owner who is not
prepared to deal with such an animal.
• Is it better to be transported for slaughter than be passed from
pillar to post and possibly mistreated or neglected if a horse’s
wellness or temperament preclude work?
• Obviously this decision needs to take into account the horse’s
suitability for transport on temperament and health grounds and
the distance and method of transport.
Paying for Euthanasia and
• In most cases disposal companies and crematoria will expect
payment in advance by card for private individual horse owners
or cash or cheque at the time
• Slaughter for human consumption will provide the owner with
recompense according to the meat price as long as the carcass is
accepted at meat hygiene inspection
Further sources of information and
• Humane Slaughter Association hand-out has useful contacts at
the back
• Phone advice is free from your vet…

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