There comes a time in every life when that life must come to an end. This is just as true for our horses as it is for our cats, our dogs and the people we love (and some we don’t).
The end of any life is a difficult situation. It sucks, it’s horrible but it’s also undeniable. As a veterinary nurse, I stood by and held many paws or stroked many faces as they passed over to the next realm. And as a veterinary nurse, I cried with each and every single passing. Without fail.
What can make it even more difficult is when the owner doesn’t know what to expect in the process. This could be from never having been through the situation before, or fear of the discussion, or simply not being told by the professional care team at the time of the event.
Although this is rather a morbid topic to bring up, I wanted to share some of the common questions about the process, both during and following, and hopefully prepare you for the situation if and when it arises (in the far future, preferably).
What is Euthanasia, and what happens?
Euthanasia by injection is a large overdose of an anaesthetic. Your horse will feel tired, relaxed and the sensation of falling asleep.
Initially, a sedative will be given to your horse via an injection into the vein. This will help relax your horse and they will generally lie down as a response. Then the vet will administer the euthanasia medication into the same vein via injection. This injection stops the brain functioning almost immediately, breathing generally ceases within 1-2 minutes and the heart will stop within 1-5 minutes.
It can sometimes be necessary to administer more of the injection than the initial dose – don’t be alarmed, as your horse can no longer feel or hear what is happening. In very few cases, your horse may twitch or sigh – again, don’t be alarmed, this is an involuntary response to the body dying, not to your horse feeling pain.
There are other methods of Euthanasia, but I have never been present or would want to be present as a veterinary nurse in those situations.
How do I know when it is time?
Every case is different, as is every horse and owner, and it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact time or scenario. However, I feel if your horse is in significant, unrelenting pain, or can no longer eat or walk, it is a good indicator that now is the time. But each owner needs to come to this decision based on your own preparedness and your own horses’ requirements. Talking with your vet or veterinary nurse can be a significant help in making that decision.
What happens to my horse after the Euthanasia?
This will depend largely on you and your local laws.
There are some councils that allow burial on your own property, if you wish. You will need to organise or hire some machinery to dig a burial plot large and deep enough, and also to move the body into the burial plot.
There are also some companies that can perform a cremation, either individually or with other animals. An individual cremation means you can have the ashes returned to you.
It is not advisable to try to sell the body of a horse euthanised by injection for horse meat.
How long should I grieve for?
This is a deeply personal question I have been asked many times, and there is no straightforward answer. Factors such as your own bond with your horse, your own experiences with death, your support network, your coping mechanisms, and the circumstances of the passing will strongly influence your grieving process.
It is ok to take a long time to grieve – we have an intrinsic bond with horses we rarely share with any other animal (how often do you jump on the back of 400kg plus animal regularly and trust that they wont kill you on purpose) and their parting can leave a large hole in our lives.
And is as equally ok to only take a short time to grieve – you are processing your horses departure from your life and preparing for the next phase of your life.
But what I will say is do not ‘not grieve’. Take the time you need, surround yourself with love, support and possibly a lot of comfort food.
If you feel you can’t seem to move on from the loss, it is perfectly normal and can be very helpful to seek professional advice. It can also be helpful to talk about your loss with your vet or vet nurse, although they are generally not trained as councillors can offer some sound information to help you feel at ease with your decision.
How do I tell my children about this?
Children can find it hard to understand the departure of a loved one, and also that you are grieving. Depending on your child’s age he or she may have a different level of understanding of the process.
There are no straightforward answers to this one, but a few things I would suggest:
· If you are religious, it can be helpful to use your religious experiences to explain.
· It can be helpful to explain that your horse was very sick and in a lot of pain, so it was kinder to perform the euthanasia.
· I would generally recommend not using the terms ‘put to sleep’, ‘God has taken them’ or ‘they had an injection’ – this can make them fearful or resentful of regular, everyday occurances.
· Allow your child to grieve and see you grieve. This is a normal process for everyone.
· If you are uncertain, seek professional advice or read some articles written by professional sources.
When should I get another horse?
This will definitely depend on you and your family, both 2 and 4-legged. Sometimes another horse will help heal the hole that was left behind, and sometimes it wont. It is important not to feel guilty if or when you do adopt another horse – you are not replacing the one you lost, simply moving forward with life. And knowing that you can give another animal the love that they are missing could go towards your own healing process.
The loss of a beloved family member, whether that of a horse or a person, is deeply personal. I hope that some of this information can help you prepare or process your own experience.