Anyone who has ever loved a horse (or pet) understands the feelings of guilt and helplessness following injury or illness of an animal. You helplessly try everything, calling your vet, admitting them to a clinic, treating them yourself at home. You try not to give up, you do everything you possibly can. 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.
During severe injuries you decide whether to continue treatment or elect euthanasia. 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 before severe injuries occur. 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) and write it down and pull it out when disaster hits. List the major equine problems and what to do if: the horse has severe colic, becomes sick, severely injured, is deteriorating in old age, 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 clearly thinking and may make poor decisions.
Long-term medical care may be a burden you and your family may be unable to emotionally or economically bare. 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. But these plans should be made 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, 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 health problems that can follow treatment. 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 would include 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.
Several veterinary teaching hospitals and veterinarian clinics have counseling programs. These services listen and help you sort out your feelings. They can provide reading resources, counseling and support.
Resources on animal death and grief
Books On 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.
- 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.
Books For Young Children
- Brackenridge, S. Because of Flowers and Dancers. Veterinary Practice Publishing Company, 1994.
- Hamley, D. Tigger and Friends. Lothroop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1989.
- Rogers, F. When a Pet Dies. Putnam Publishing Group, 1988.
- Viorst, J. The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. Atheneum, 1971.
- Wilhelm, H. I'll Always Love You. Crown Publishing Group, 1985.
Books on Grief For Parents
- Heegaard, M. When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope With Grief. Woodland Press, 1988.
- Jewett, C.L. Helping Children Cope with Separation and Loss. The Harvard Common Press, 1982.
- Wolfelt, A. Helping Children Cope with Grief. Accelerated Development, 1983.
- Oh, Where Has My Pet Gone? Available from B. Libby Press, 1426 Holdridge Circle, Wayzata, MN, 55391.
- The Loss of Your Pet. Available from American Animal Hospital Association, 12575 W. Bayaud Ave Lakewood, Colorado, USA 80228. Phone: 303-986-2800. Fax: 303-986-1700. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Your veterinarian