If you own horses long enough, you’ll eventually have to deal with the loss of a horse. Saying goodbye to a beloved equine can be traumatic. But death is an inevitable aspect of caring for any animal.

Sometimes horse owners have to make end-of-life decisions. And after the final goodbye, the owner is responsible for determining what to do with the horse’s body.

Having a plan and understanding your options for equine disposal helps make difficult decisions more manageable when the time comes. While all horse owners hope the unthinkable never happens, better preparation can benefit everyone, not just senior horse owners.

This article will discuss humane euthanasia for horses, equine necropsy, and animal carcass disposal options. Keep reading to learn more about how to make a plan for when someday becomes today.

Equine Euthanasia

Humane euthanasia is the final act of kindness owners can give their horses. Sometimes senior horses start to deteriorate, and putting them down prevents excessive pain and discomfort in their last days.

The average domesticated horse has a lifespan of 25 to 30 years. The most common causes of death, including euthanasia, are colic, neurologic disorders, chronic weight loss, cancer, trauma, lameness, and respiratory problems. [11]

Unexpected emergencies and medical conditions force horse owners to turn to euthanasia to alleviate suffering. But how do you know when it’s time?

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When to Consider Euthanasia

You should always consult your veterinarian when evaluating your horse’s quality of life and treatment options. According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), circumstances that might warrant discussing euthanasia with your veterinarian include: [12]

  • The horse has a chronic, incurable medical condition that causes inhumane pain and suffering.
  • The horse has an acute medical condition with a poor prognosis for quality of life.
  • The horse has an unmanageable medical or behavioural condition that makes it a hazard to itself or others.
  • The horse will require continuous pain medication or box stall confinement for the rest of its life.

Methods of Euthanasia

Chemical euthanasia by a qualified veterinarian is the most common way to put a horse down humanely. Most veterinarians use intravenous pentobarbital for this purpose.

Injecting a sedative before the barbiturate helps make the process as calm as possible. In most cases, horses do not struggle or suffer any distress. [1]

However, barbiturates accumulate in the carcass after death and can have environmental impacts depending on the disposal method. [2]

Alternative methods of chemical euthanasia deemed acceptable by the AAEP include intravenous potassium or magnesium salts, intracardiac potassium chloride, or intrathecal lidocaine. Vets administer these medications after general anesthesia. [3][13]

The AAEP also recognizes euthanasia by gunshot or captive bolt to the brain as a humane technique when performed by adequately trained personnel familiar with the horse’s skull anatomy. [13]

Equine Necropsy

Some owners elect to have a necropsy done after the death of a horse. A necropsy is a post-mortem examination, or autopsy, performed on an animal by a veterinarian.

This procedure involves an examination of the inside and outside of the horse’s body. Pathologists might save tissues for microscopic examination depending on case history and initial findings. [4]

Other tests sometimes warranted by necropsy findings include bacterial cultures, fecal examinations, serology, viral isolation, molecular biology, mineral analysis, and toxicology.

Pathologists will use results from the tests and examination to arrive at a diagnosis to report to the client.

Reasons for Necropsy

Necropsies are primarily performed on horses to determine the cause of death or event that lead to the necessity of euthanasia. Necropsies are often necessary for insurance claims or legal documentation, but some owners desire closure.

Sometimes, veterinarians and owners want confirmation of an original diagnosis. The necropsy might find a secondary condition that made the disease difficult to treat, which can provide valuable information for future treatment decisions in other horses.

Necropsies can also check for effects, side effects, and unintended reactions in horses that received treatment. Reporting adverse reactions ensures other horses aren’t harmed by similar therapy.

In cases that involve multiple or sudden deaths, necropsies can help determine if other horses in the barn are at risk for a contagious illness.

Equine Disposal Options

The method of euthanasia and the decision to complete a necropsy can affect carcass disposal options. Local laws regulating the disposal of animal carcasses vary by region. However, most laws require carcass removal within 24 to 72 hours. [5]

Without proper disposal, equine carcasses can threaten the health of wildlife, pets, and humans. Pets or wild animals that consume the carcass after chemical euthanasia can become sick or die. Incorrect disposal can contaminate the environment and water sources. [6]

Horse owners should consult their veterinarian and local officials before finalizing disposal plans. Off-site disposal also involves organizing licensed transportation, and some on-site methods require heavy equipment.

Burial

Horse owners with a private property may wish to bury their horses at home. Burial can be cost-effective but might not be allowed everywhere.

State and local ordinances often have specific requirements for the depth of burial, soil conditions, vegetation types, and positioning near water sources. Check with your local authorities to determine whether this is a legal option.

Burial may be prohibited if your horse dies from a contagious disease. Some areas require the body to be covered with lime before burial.

On average, graves should be at least 5 feet above the water table and covered with 5 feet of dirt. Scavengers and burrowing vermin should not be able to access the carcass. [7]

Few pet cemeteries accept horses for burial because they don’t have the space or heavy equipment required. If a cemetery does take horses, they often contract with a hauler who can transport the body.

Most states don’t allow the burial of large animal carcasses at landfills. Contact your county public health official for more information on local regulations.

Composting

Composting your horse on-site is cost-effective and environmentally friendly. An adequately built compost pile will deter scavengers and create soil-like material owners can use to plant trees.

This disposal method covers the animal with carbon-based material like wood chips. Microorganisms digest the animal and give off heat. [7] For successful composting to occur, compost piles must reach a temperature range between 104 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Static pile composting is possible for intact animals if the pile has adequate natural aeration. The high temperatures of compost piles kill pathogens and control odours. Research shows that pentobarbital degrades during the composting process. [2]

Composting sites should be at least 200 feet from water sources in a well-drained area. Lay down a 24-inch bed of suitable material at the compost site before placing the body in the center of the bed.

Cover the animal entirely with a 24″ layer of material. Lancing the abdomen will help prevent bloating and cover displacement. It takes about six to twelve months for horses to decompose in these piles, but large bones may not break down. [8]

Monitoring the piles with thermometers ensures they reach sufficient temperatures. During frigid weather, larger banks are necessary to minimize surface cooling.

Cremation

Some crematoriums have large furnaces that produce the ultra-high temperatures required to cremate horses. Individual whole-horse cremation allows owners to retrieve their horse’s ashes but is relatively expensive. Communal cremation is a more affordable alternative. [7]

Most crematoriums sell urns for horse owners to keep the ashes. An average horse’s body will produce around 60 pounds of ashes, so horse urns must be relatively sturdy and large. Some owners spread the ashes in a special location instead of keeping them.

Most laboratories will only release the remains directly to crematoriums if your horse has a necropsy. Releasing unprocessed remains for home burial is hazardous due to potential cross-contamination. Many veterinary schools offer communal