Thursday, October 8, 2009

Dealing With Death And Euthanasia

Another post written mainly by Jason with some input from Melissa:

Someone asked another good question in the comments a couple of posts back, about how we handle death on the retirement farm. It is a good question that is hard to answer in a few sentences, and it is something that anyone contemplating starting a retirement farm needs to think over thoroughly. As many of you know, I grew up on a working farm in Ontario, Canada and I learned very early that death is an integral part of a life’s journey…as important to the overall cycle…actually, maybe MORE important to the overall cycle…than is birth itself. Treating our charges with respect when they are here with us is at least as important (and a lot more productive, functional and positive) than worrying endlessly about how or when it is going to be their time. Anyone contemplating running a farm involving livestock or horses HAS to be fully aware that death is a real possibility and fully okay with what will happen when the situation presents itself. We thought long and hard about how death was likely to show it’s face on our farm, and perhaps more importantly, we thought about what we were going to do about it BEFORE the first horse got off the truck.

Death for the charges at our farm can/could/does come in basically four forms:

Old age
Serious/unrecoverable injury
Owner’s financial considerations

Old age is the one we deal with most often, and in many ways it’s the easiest one to handle. While there is some possibility that one will walk out in the pasture and simply find what was yesterday a healthy horse dead at morning chore time, life is seldom that simple. This has happened to us only once. More often than not at some point during the process of physical shutdown, and always with the owner's blessings, we mercifully intervene and hasten on the inevitable. In our opinion death by old age is too often a slow, tedious process, and we monitor a variety of quality of life situations to determine when and if our intervention is needed. Letting an animal suffer on for days or weeks when quality of life is seriously compromised in order that it have a “natural” death IS animal abuse in our book.

Serious unrecoverable injuries are rare…in fact to date we've never had this happen, but it sure COULD happen at any time. Triage in the field would be step one. Step two may involve calling the vet for treatment or euthanasia. If the animal is injured so severely that in our opinion treatment is futile, instant euthanasia by gunshot is the last option. We recognize the reality that although the owners clearly care a lot about their horses (hence their first class retirement with us) we sure don’t fault them for not wishing to spend thousands of dollars for a potentially poor outcome on an aged or permanently lame horse. When it's possible to do so, we honour their requests for either treatment or euthanasia and when they aren't available, we use our judgement combined with the instructions they provided us in our board contract.

We struggle with when to end an animals’ life due to untreatable, progressive disease more than we do all the others combined. It is never easy to know when it is the correct time to euthanize an animal suffering from progressive disease. Here again though, we use quality of life measures as our guide. Some of the questions we ask ourselves involve things that are relatively easy to quantify. Some examples would be is the animal able to eat unimpeded, is it holding weight, is it moving relatively freely? There are also other questions that are harder to quantify but very necessary. Some examples of these would be how “bright” does the horse look, is it taking interest in its normal activities? Usually when some combination of the easy and difficult questions come back negative over a few days, it is time for a final consult with the owners. During this time we also provide pictures and videos to allow the owners to have good visuals and to see what we are seeing.

In a perfect world, one would never have to euthanize an otherwise healthy animal for financial reasons. However, the world we live in is not perfect. We have only dealt with this situation once. Our client was very forthright about the dramatic change in her financial situation due to some unforeseen personal circumstances. Her horse was young, had an injury that he would never recover from, and we all felt like it would be playing russian roulette with his future to try and give him away as a companion. The option of humane euthanasia was wisely chosen by his owner and we supported her choice. It was not an easy or a feel good decision, but Melissa and I strongly felt it was the best decision for the horse.

We have had more than one retiree come to us after the companion route was tried first. Usually the first companion home works out well for however long it lasts. But then someone decides why support the useless horse when I could have a companion horse I could also ride? So these horses (2 different horses in 2 different states) were given away again, and life went downhill quickly. They were respectively in body condition scores of 2 and 3 when they arrived here. Had good samaritans not intervened in each case and tracked down the former owners the horses would have died a miserable, slow death of starvation. They were already well on their way. After these experiences it made it much easier to support the euthanasia option. There are fates much worse than a humane death for a horse, especially a permanently unrideable, young horse who was now going to be dependent on complete strangers to continue to support him for many more years.

Although it has yet to happen there is the possibility that a client will just flat out stop communicating with us and stop paying their bills. Should this ever happen I promise that I will waste very little patience on these people. In my opinion this action by the owner places us in the unfair and unacceptable position of having to decide the fate of THEIR animal due to THEIR poor decision making. Because this farm is run as a business (it is our primary livelihood) and because it does not operate on unlimited funds, we can’t make exceptions for bad owners, even when their horses are great. When their board money runs out and when repeated attempts to contact them fail, our board contract allows us to euthanize the animal(s) in question. I hope we are never put in this situation but if we are we will be forced to euthanize the horse(s). We cannot jeapordize our ability to care for the horses of our paying customers by supporting a horse that has been abandoned.

The retirees here have no inherent value on the market, they are retired for a reason, so selling them to another home is not a viable option. I am sure we will be told we are horrible people for taking this approach, but in my mind it would be the only responsible decision in this situation. I hope we never have to face this and in all honesty I cannot imagine any of our owners putting us in that situation. Many of you are probably thinking that instead of euthanasia in such a situation that we should try to dump the horse on a rescue. If you have ever been involved in animal rescue of any kind you will know that all rescues are strapped for space, time, volunteers, and most of all money.

Methods of Euthanasia

We STRONGLY PREFER to call a vet out to administer humane euthanasia via an overdose of barbiturate with a needle. It is quick, clean, inexpensive (and painless insofar as we can tell) for the animal in question.

There is the possibility of situations where suffering is severe and calling a vet is not going to get the job done quickly enough. We feel that death administered by a well placed bullet in the head is a viable alternative. Thankfully this is another scenario we have never had to deal with on this farm and I hope we never have to deal with it. However, I have certainly had to shoot sick or injured cows and calves at times in the past on my farm in Ontario, and I am competent to do so.
For those who argue that guns have no place in our civilized society, I would argue back that on a working farm a gun is at times as necessary a tool as a shovel or a pitchfork, and every responsible person on the farm needs to be trained in their proper care and use. We keep several guns on hand and at the ready should the need arise. We also have our pet goats, chickens, 2 barn cats and a small dog (Bear) on the farm which can be threatened by animals that would never bother a horse such as coyotes and larger stray dogs. Not to mention the opossum and the raccoon that decided to take up residence in the barn a few months ago. When wild animals become comfortable in the barn trapping and relocating does not work, they just come back.

Ending life is not something that we ever take lightly, regardless of the circumstances or the animal in question. However there are times when this has to be faced, and we try to handle it with compassion and dignity for all involved. I am glad that we have never had to face most of the possibilities discussed in this post. However Melissa and I did sit down and discuss all of these potential situations at length before we accepted our first retiree on the farm. Death is an inevitable part of life, and having made decisions ahead of time on how to handle different scenarios can make very hard tasks at least a touch easier.

Now that we've written the most depressing post ever we'll move on to some much happier pictures!

Elfin, he is retired from the amateur owner hunter division; he is very much a mischief maker and whenever something is going on Elfin is sure to be in the middle of it.

Chance and Homer; Chance is a thoroughbred and Homer is an Irish bred and they are both retired show hunters. Homer is the alpha horse in his group while Chance is always the low man on the totem pole no matter who he lives with. As you can see they don't really care about herd order most of the time. The only time it really matters is at feeding times.

Some of the 'big boys' grazing. The first four across the front are Ivan, Levendi, Apollo and Elfin. Leo is in the middle and then in the back, somewhat hiding from view, are Homer and Chance.

I took these next few pictures for Jason after another round of mowing. He likes to admire his work. :)

Lovely mowing there Jason

A gorgeous blue sky and Ogie provide some nice background material for another picture of Jason's mowing
B-Rad and Asterik grazing next to each other and Ogie is grazing to the right
Buffy, retired show hunter and Cuff Links, retired pony hunter

Faune, affectionately known as the "big French guy" (he is a Selle Francais), and Sebastian, a Connemara/Irish Draught cross
MyLight (thoroughbred and retired dressage horse), Cuff Links, Harmony (thoroughbred and retired polo pony), Missy (Quarter Horse pony who worked at a dude ranch for many years before he current family bought her) and Lily (Quarter Horse/Warmblood cross who showed in the jumpers)

All lined up, Sebastian, Trillion, Winston and Ogie

Winston and Trillion; both are retired show hunters. Trillion was nationally ranked in the 4' hunters and circuit champion at the Winter Equestrian Festival

Winston and Ogie; Ogie is a retired 3-day event horse


Kate said...

A hard subject - I've had two euthanasia experiences, and I believe it's important to be prepared for this and understand when it is necessary. My mare Promise fractured her P1 pastern bone in 9 places running in turnout, at age 10. We took her to a very good vet clinic for evaluation, after stabilizing her with a splint, but there was no way to save her, even for a pasture pet, so I had to euthanize her. It was very hard - she was healthy and a wonderful horse, one of the best I'm ever likely to have in my life.

Then we had an 18 year old horse at our barn who developed abdominal cancer, confirmed by an abdominal tap. He dropped weight, and got weaker and weaker, and was in pain - he was getting pain meds 2x a day, but it wasn't working. I had to twist his owner's arm - his owner did not see him on a regular basis - to finally persuade them that he was suffering, and they agreed to euthanize him - if he had been mine I wouldn't have waited so long.

It's hard, but it's important to know what you need to do, and that the horse needs you to be there for them to make that decision to spare them suffering.

RuckusButt said...

I really appreciate your openness about this topic. I completely agree with your approach in every situation. I admit I used to have "no kill" mentality, until I matured a little and started to learn about the real issues and what it really means to be humane.

Just today, I gave my "why I don't believe in no kill shelters" speech (for dogs) twice when I was talking about my next dog foster!

I'm glad you haven't had to deal with some of the less savory situations but I admire your foresight and realism. Your approach is truly humane, in my opinion.

phaedra96 said...

Thank you for the clarification. A topic no one wants to discuss, but the cold hard facts dictate your response. I am glad the issue has never arisen. I would so love to have a place like you dotted with grazing horses.

SchipperkeReferee said...

As you say, it's all part of the cycle. When you are entrusted with the life of animals you have to consider how your going to handle that fateful decision. I added to our small group an older mare. It turned out that it was not for as long as I wanted but I came to feel that my part in the path of her life was to be there, letting her go with dignity instead of just passing from one home to another as an old horse nobody wanted on their watch. Thank you for your thoughtful post.

Java's Mom said...

I'm late with my question, hope you see it: do you guys offer burial on the property (horse burial)?