Written by: J.L. Orchard

Euthanasia is not an easy road to take, but when the time comes, knowing what to expect can help.

Thumbnail for Lethal Injection

Pam Mackenzie photo

Krista Mills has seen pets euthanized by lethal injection, but a horse is a different story. “The vet didn’t say much,” Mills recalled. “She explained what would happen and that was it.”

When Mills called to schedule euthanasia for a 28-year-old mare in the riding program she heads up, she was given a date and a four-hour time frame of when the vet should arrive. “It’s best if you can get a vet that will schedule a specific time. The waiting is awful, but it gives you the chance to say goodbye,” she noted.

Mills went to the barn early to groom and hand-graze Dezzy. It was heaven for the horse, since she no longer had teeth and couldn’t cope in the herd. “With Dezzy, we didn’t really have a choice. Her back legs were starting to drag and she couldn’t bend her neck very well. I looked into her eyes and she said, ‘Let me go.’”

Then the vet arrived.

Making the Decision

Mills stood on my porch, weeks after losing Dezzy. Arms across her chest, she gazed into the distance. As the owner of a senior horse, I asked Mills if she had advice for me. She spoke slowly. “If you don’t have to be there, don’t.”

I’d heard family and friends retell their euthanasia experiences, with grief and discomfort, openly questioning whether the drug had caused their pet pain. I wondered if Mills had the same question.

We accept lethal injection as humane, but how well do we understand the procedure? Do the stories reveal something we’ve tried to ignore, or are they the emotional doubts of grieving horse lovers?

It’s the last question we want to ask when our horse is healthy, the last point we want to address at annual vet visits. But when we take that last step with our horse, isn’t it the answer we want most? Is lethal injection humane?

The Facts of the Matter

Dr. Melissa McKee’s nine years as a practicing veterinarian with Ontario’s McKee-Pownall Equine Services has more than familiarized her with euthanasia by lethal injection. “The decision to put an animal to sleep is exclusively that of the owner,” she said.

For horses with long-term chronic or debilitating conditions, McKee advises owners to let the horse tell them when they are ready to go and provides a list of signs that indicate the time has come such as extreme weight loss, bed sores, constant elevated heart rate from pain and a lack of interest in life in general. But, unfortunately, “we don’t always have the luxury of preparing for this event,” she added.

“I only perform lethal injection euthanasia,” said McKee. “In our culture, guns are frowned upon and captive bolts are thought of as the slaughter house tool. People are more comfortable with lethal injection.”

But what is lethal injection? What does it do beneath the surface that we don’t see?

“The drug most commonly used is a barbiturate,” said McKee. “Most vets will administer a heavy sedative such as xylazine [to relax the horse] before giving the euthanasia drug. [After the horse is quiet], a bolus of the drug is rapidly administered into the jugular vein. This drug depresses the central nervous system, quickly rendering the horse unconscious. At lower doses, similar drugs are used for general anesthesia in surgeries.”

The drug suppresses brain signals, stopping heart and respiration in about 30 seconds. On the occasion that a sluggish heartbeat is detected, a vet will give a second dose to the unconscious horse. If a sufficient dose is properly given, lethal injection should never fail to end the horse’s life. But does that still mean it’s a smooth road getting there?

The initial vein puncture is no more uncomfortable than a vaccine injection. “As far as we know,” McKee added, “barbiturate euthanasia is not painful. People who’ve received the same class of drugs for general anesthesia haven’t reported pain associated with administration. It’s safe to assume, neither do our horses. The reality is that most [euthanasias] are quiet and peaceful events. Just, nobody talks about those ones.”

Oftentimes, concern for our horse causes us to become hyper-sensitive to their body language, and the smallest twitch can look like a writhe of agony. Rare physical reactions to the drug can leave an image you may struggle with for years afterward. McKee is aware of these potential reactions. They’re most common when the horse is already debilitated and circulation of the drug to the brain is slow, or if the horse’s extreme pain has increased its adrenaline levels. They can also occur if the needle slips from the vein before a sufficient dose is given or if the horse is stressed by the atmosphere around it, including upset or noisy people. In these situations, the horse may stagger before falling awkwardly and still stir after it is down. In most cases the horse has already lost its sense of pain and its muscle control. “[The reaction] usually passes very quickly,” said McKee, “although it does seem like an eternity for everyone involved.”

McKee warns owners about primordial reflexes that occur as the blood oxygen levels decline. “The muscles of the diaphragm can spasm a few times, which looks horribly like the horse is still alive and gasping for air.” This can be expected and although it is disturbing to witness, the horse is already unconscious and unaware of pain. “It does not mean the horse is regaining consciousness.”

The mass majority of lethal injection cases, when done by trained hands, are not a painful experience for the horse. Witnessing the death of a beloved pet, however, is never pleasant, and horses are worse. “A very unfortunate factor in euthanasia is that horses are very big animals,” McKee explained. “They generally have to fall down once they lose consciousness.”

For Mills, watching Dezzy go down was gut-wrenching. “Dezzy didn’t lie down after the sedative, so the vet had to give her the injection. She just dropped.” Of the whole euthanasia process, Mills said, “That was the absolute worst thing. Just bang. Hit the dirt.”

The vet checked Dezzy’s heartbeat and confirmed she was gone. “I felt it was best for Dezzy, and that I owed it to her to be there in her last moments,” said Mills. “But I truly hope I never have to do that again. It’s not like a dog or a cat, where they’re already lying down and just slip away.

“I think the more you know, the better prepared you are to cope with it. Not that it gets any easier. It still brings tears to my eyes, [but] I’ve never regretted that we put her down.”

In the End

“The ideal situation,” McKee said, “is when the owner has a few quiet moments with the horse, and then leaves after the preliminary sedative is administered.” Euthanasia, no matter how painless for your horse, is distressing to witness.

“As vets, we take the actual procedure very seriously and do all we can to make it as smooth and non-traumatic as possible. We may not show it, [but] we are also deeply affected by the event. If we seem quieter than usual, remember that it is our role to be calm, and in control of a very emotional situation as this reduces stress and anxiety for the horse.

“When we own an animal, we accept responsibility for their welfare and, ultimately, must make these difficult decisions for them since they cannot speak for themselves.”

McKee takes comfort in her belief that animals have no awareness or anticipation of their own mortality and is fully convinced that no choice is more humane than one done out of love to end a horse’s suffering when all other options have run dry. “When I relieve the suffering of a horse, I am thankful that I was able to be there when I was needed most. As a vet and guardian of animal welfare, humane euthanasia is a very important role for me.”

When the time comes that you and your horse must say good¬bye, you may choose to follow Mills’ advice and not be present. But you do not need to wonder for years afterward whether you made the right decision. It only takes a moment with a horse, one look in their eyes, to know there is no creature more appreciative or forgiving. When all is said and done, your horse shall forever rest in peace and, for your horse, euthanasia by lethal injection is a gentle road.