How To Know When It’s Time to Euthanize Your Horse

One of the most challenging moments of a horse owner’s life is when you’re faced with the difficult decision of knowing whether or not it’s time to euthanize your horse. I know that in the midst of so many emotions it can be difficult to make a decision that you’re confident about, so I wrote this article to offer you as much help as possible through the process.

When should you euthanize your horse? A horse should be euthanized when they are facing severe suffering due to any type of medical condition, you lack sufficient finances to provide the necessary treatments your horse needs to be relieved of misery, and a horse consistently displays behavioral issues that place the lives of others at high risk.

While these are some of the general reasons to consider euthanasia for your horse, it’s important to keep in mind that no two situations are the same. Before taking any action, I recommend speaking with your vet and getting their full input on the situation. They will be able to help you make an informed decision based on your horse’s unique condition and offer solutions catered to your specific needs.

To help you better understand your own circumstances and what actions you might consider, let’s examine the potential reasons for euthanizing a horse in detail.

Euthanasia for Medical Conditions and Severe Suffering

Horse Grazing

Medical conditions are the number one reason that horses are euthanized. Horses are resilient creatures that in the right circumstances can recover from a variety of medical issues, but sometimes they aren’t able to recover without first having to go through years of debilitating suffering. In these circumstances, euthanasia is the most compassionate thing to do.

Here are some of the common medical conditions where vets commonly recommend euthanizing.

Debilitation from Old Age

The majority of horses live to be 25 to 30 years old, however, the age at which a horse is considered “old” can vary depending upon factors such as their genetics and breed. Horses can begin demonstrating signs of old age as early as 15 years old. Here are some of the main signs you can recognize:

Lameness. Lameness is when a horse is not able to move and stand normally, typically as a result of pain.

Poor Eyesight. As a horse becomes older, the quality of their eyesight can decrease significantly. This makes them more prone to physical injury as a result of tripping over and colliding with objects.

Loss of Weight. A horse that is well-aged will begin to lose weight. Most of the weight that is lost is from their muscle mass. As a result, the features of an older horse are much more prominent.

Greater Susceptibility to Illness. As horses age, their immune systems become less capable of keeping their bodies safe from diseases as well as parasites. As you begin recognizing signs of old age in your horse, it’s recommended that you have them inspected more frequently by a vet to ensure that they stay healthy.

When it gets to the point where your horse is always in pain and is unable to do the things that you know that they’ve always enjoyed doing, it’s time to begin thinking of euthanasia as an option. Every horse is different, but when a horse’s quality of life hits rock bottom, euthanasia is normally the most compassionate choice you can make. 

Euthanasia for Serious Birth Defects

At times, horses are born with serious birth defects that can cause pain, limit mobility, and will only become worse as the horse ages. In situations like this, foals are commonly euthanized.

Substantial Traumatic Injuries 

Substantial traumatic injuries would be classified as broken bones, serious lacerations, and any other form of injury that causes a horse a significant amount of pain and suffering. Some traumatic injuries can be recovered from quickly with the guidance and treatment of a trained veterinarian, but others might never fully recover. You can read my article on some of the more common horse injuries here.

It can be difficult to diagnose the severity of an injury on your own, so I recommend having a vet come and examine any injuries. They’ll be able to tell you more about the expected outcome of the situation, and whether or not euthanasia is the best option.

Sicknesses and Diseases 

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of sicknesses and diseases that horses can contract. While many of them are not fatal, there are a number that can result in situations where euthanizing a horse is the best option. Here are a few of the main ones to be aware of.

Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis. Also known as EPM, this disease can be very difficult to recognize and diagnose due to the similarities of the symptoms to other health issues. Some of the symptoms are excessive sweating, weakness, and difficulty swallowing. When caught in the early stages and treated quickly, horses can make a full recovery from EPM.

Equine Influenza. Equine Influenza is a disease that can appear very rapidly in horses. Some of the symptoms are nasal discharge, high body temperature, eye discharges, and loss of appetite. While treatable, it can be fatal at times. Young horses and old horses are far more susceptible to getting equine influenza.

Equine Infectious Anemia. Equine Infectious Anemia is an incurable disease that remains contagious throughout the duration of a horse’s life. Some of the symptoms are lethargy, loss of weight, and high temperatures. You can find out more about this disease here.

Strangles. Strangles is a very contagious disease caused by infection. It’s been around for hundreds of years, and cases have been reported all around the world. Strangles can cause horses to suffocate due to an enlargement of the lymph nodes in their jaws that can restrict their intake of oxygen.

Euthanasia Due to Insufficient Funds for Necessary Treatments 

One of the harsh realities of being a horse owner is that sometimes there are treatments and remedies available that you simply can’t afford. Many people don’t have the finances to spends thousands upon thousands of dollars to provide their horse with expert medical help.

While finances can be a major hurdle for caring for the needs of a horse, I’ve had friends that have raised thousands of dollars for medical treatments for their pets utilizing social media and other platforms to raise awareness. While this route may or may not be successful, it can help put you at ease knowing that you did your best to provide the proper treatments for your horse.

Here are some of the popular websites you might consider using to raise funds: 

Euthanasia for Behavior Issues that Place Other’s Lives’ at Risk 

Horses that exhibit consistently aggressive behavior are a danger not only to themselves but also to anyone that they come in contact with. If a horse gets to a point where a human can’t approach it because it’s too dangerous, the horse’s way of life will start to decrease. It won’t be able to receive proper care, vet or farrier attention.

My friend once rescued a horse from a kill lot. The horse was very dangerous; it would charge anyone who got close. My friend tried everything to make the horse better, including sending it to a well-respected trainer. Long story short, the trainer couldn’t get anywhere with the horse.

In this instance, the most humane option was to put the horse down. If my friend kept it, there was no way that the horse would allow for proper care. If she sold it, it would probably have ended up right back at the kill lot.

It is very important that when dealing with these horses, euthanasia is considered your very last option. I would never put a horse down due to dangerous behavior without trying everything I could to help the horse beforehand.

Thank you for reading, and I wish you all the best in your unique situation. I understand how difficult the decision to euthanize a horse can be, so I hope that I’ve been able to help you gain some clarity. If you’d like to keep learning, you can read more of my recent health-related articles here.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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