Develop a "Living Will for Your Horse"
Posted: March 29, 2012
By Ann M. Swinker, Extension Horse Specialist, Penn State University
Sometimes the bond between the animal and owner are so strong the animal lives because the owner wanted them to. But, sometimes you must let them go because they need to die.
Whether you decide to continue treatment or elect euthanasia is a responsibility you assumed as part of taking on the ownership of your horse. When acquiring ownership, you assumed responsibility for the health and welfare of your horse. In some cases you will be faced with making a life-or-death decision about your horse. After assessing the severity of the case, many times the kindest thing you can do for a horse that is so sick, injured, old, lame or dangerous is to have your veterinarian humanely induce death. These decisions are not easy to make, and at this time when your emotions are running wild it is not the time to make them. You need to have a plan for your horse and yourself. This plan should be discussed with other family members and your veterinarian, trainer or friends. Before disaster hits evaluate each horse (or animal) and logically decide how and what you want done. Assume you are leaving for a vacation far away and you are leaving explicit instructions on what to do in case of ... emergencies. (Many times these situations occur when you are not home).
Economic, emotional, and space or skill limitations may force an owner to make difficult decisions. Work out a disaster plan for your horse(s) write it down and (God forbidding) pull it out when disaster hits. List the major equine problems and what to do if: the horse severely colics, becomes sick, severely injured, becomes too old, too lame, too dangerous, etc. Discuss all possible alternatives, logically before being hit with a real disaster. At the time of a real accident or sickness you may not be thinking logically and may make poor decisions.
Long-term medical care may be a burden you and your family may be unable to bear emotionally or economically. You need to discuss this openly and honestly. Your plan should also include what should happen to your animals in case of your death or long-term illness. Put a financial limit on the long-term medical care you are able to provide each animal. This sounds cruel, however, extended long-term medical care can cost you your life savings and retirement, your marriage, or friendships. When you tell the vet “Do everything you can to save my horse” at some point reality must override your emotions. Sometimes, the kindest and smartest thing you can do for your horse (friend) is one that will break your heart. Make this plan well in advance.
When disaster does strike, discuss all possible alternatives with family, friends and your veterinarian and pull out your written plan. Hopefully this will help you feel more peaceful about your decision.
If something happens and your horse can no longer experience a quality life, is unable to respond to you in its usual ways, is experiencing more pain than pleasure, or is terminally ill or critically injured, or if the financial or emotional cost of treatment is beyond your means, you may need to consider euthanasia. A veterinarian can examine and evaluate your horse’s condition, don’t be afraid to ask what are the potential disabilities and long-term problems. Before treatment starts you must ask about the cost (and long-term costs). If you don’t understand the diagnosis and prognosis, ask the vet to explain it again.
Whether dealing with a severe illness or injury, death of an animal or the decision to euthanize the feeling of grief, guilt and helplessness will overcome us all. These emotional feelings are natural. The grieving process includes accepting the reality of your loss, accepting that the loss and accompanying feelings are painful, and adjusting to your new life which no longer includes your horse (or a horse with a disability). You need to understand the grieving process, in order to manage your grief, and help others in the family share the loss.
Many veterinary hospitals have information on dealing with grief from the
loss of an animal. This grief is real and you need to understand and may
information on the process. Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching
Hospital has a counseling program, “The Changes program.” This service listens
and helps you sort out your feelings. They can provide reading resources,
counseling or support. Contact the Changes Program at VTH, 970/491-1242.
Penn Veterinary Medicine, New Bolton Center, has a program at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (215) 746-8247. http://www.vet.upenn.edu/SpecialtyCareServices/GriefCounseling/Counseling/tabid/1953/Default.aspx
Other resources on animal death and grief are:
Books – Pet Loss
Church, J.A. Joy in a Wooly Coat: Living With, Loving & Letting Go of Treasured Animal Friends. H.J. Kramer Inc., 1987.
Lagoni, L., Butler, C., & Hetts, S. The Human-Animal Bond and Grief. W.B. Saunders, 1994.
Lemieus, C. Coping with the Loss of a Pet. Wallace R. Clark, 1988.
Quackenbush, J., & Graveline, D. When Your Pet Dies: How to Cope With Your Feelings. Simon and Schuster, 1985. (Currently out of print).
Sife, W. The Loss of a Pet. Howell Book House, 1993.
Montgomery, Mary & Herb. A Final Act of Caring: Ending the Life of an Animal Friend. Montgomery Press, 1993.