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 incineration services.

Burning your horse’s body on private property is usually prohibited by environmental laws. Burning livestock on a homemade pyre takes days and creates a strong, unpleasant odour. Crematoriums have industrial air filters and use extreme heat to cremate large animals.

Rendering

Rendering is a waste-free solution for processing animal carcasses. Although rendering is a standard option for equine disposal, some rendering plants won’t accept animals euthanized with barbiturates. [7]

Accepted animal carcasses enter the raw material stream with other animal by-products. These facilities convert waste animal tissue into usable materials such as fuel and animal feed. The heat involved in this process kills pathogens that pose a threat to human and animal health. [9]

The entire carcass is ground and cooked in mass with other materials. The cooking process removes most of the water content and separates fat from the dry material for biodiesel. The remaining bone and meat meal is an ingredient for animal feed.

Rendering is a cost-effective disposal option if you live reasonably close to a rendering plant. Horse owners usually only have to pay for a licensed carcass hauler to transport the body off their property.

While the process might be hard for some owners to stomach, recycling animal tissues through the rendering industry has several advantages for the environment.

Biodigesters

Biodigesters are an environmentally friendly alternative to incinerators. These machines are similar to pressure cookers.

They use alkaline hydrolysis to kill harmful waste in the carcass and turn a large animal into an aqueous solution of sugars, amino acids, and peptides within hours. Bones and teeth are reduced to mineral ash. [10]

Biodigestion is a popular option for veterinary colleges and laboratories that need inexpensive methods for carcass disposal. While the machines require a significant upfront investment, they cost less to operate.

This method is also safer for staff because biodigesters don’t expose operators to fumes. In addition, the remains left over after biodigestion are sterile and safe to dispose of at a local landfill or use as fertilizer.

Carcass Transportation

Transporting the body of a large animal for off-site disposal requires significant logistical planning. Horses are big, heavy animals that are difficult to transport after they die.

Euthanasia Location

If your horse passes away at a veterinary clinic, they may have the resources to dispose of the body on-site or arrange disposal for you.

Often, horses are too ill to travel to a clinic before euthanasia. Instead, veterinarians frequently perform the procedure at the horse’s home farm or boarding stable.

If you have scheduled euthanasia in advance, try to choose a location that will ease the next step in the horse’s final journey. If you plan to transport your horse off-site, arrange the euthanasia in a truck-accessible pasture if possible.

Sometimes tragedy can strike when you least expect it. If your horse does pass away in a stall, carcass haulers often have the equipment and experience necessary to remove the body in a dignified manner.

Carcass Haulers

Many states require haulers who regularly transport deceased livestock to have special licenses and meet vehicle requirements. For example, some states require leak-proof or refrigerated vehicles.

Your veterinarian likely has contact information for professional haulers in your region.

Local laws often mandate the appropriate disposal of animal carcasses within 24 hours to protect public health. Planning in advance can prevent headaches on a sad day.

If you can’t find a professional service nearby, neighbours in rural communities are often willing to step up to help a grieving horse owner. Just ensure that you follow local laws for carcass disposal and transportation.

Summary

  • Dealing with the loss of a horse is an inevitable part of horse ownership, made easier by advanced preparation.
  • Humane euthanasia can prevent unnecessary suffering in geriatric horses and may be necessary for emergencies with a poor prognosis for life.
  • The AAEP recognizes different methods of euthanasia as humane options for horses, and the technique used can impact carcass disposal options.
  • Some horses need a necropsy to determine the cause of death, which can also impact the disposal options available.
  • Typical disposal options for equine carcasses include burial, composting, cremation, rendering, and biodigestion.
  • Local laws regulate legal options for livestock carcass disposal and transportation. Check with your veterinarian and representative to learn more.

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References

  1. Aleman, M. et al. Cerebral and brainstem electrophysiologic activity during euthanasia with pentobarbital sodium in horses. J Vet Intern Med. 2015. View Summary
  2. Payne, J. et al. Quantification of sodium pentobarbital residues from equine mortality compost piles. J Anim Sci. 2015. View Summary
  3. Turner, T. When All Else Fails: Alternative Methods of Euthanasia. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2021. View Summary
  4. Morales-Briceno, A. Equine Necropsy: A Update. EC Vet Sci. 2020.
  5. Dahlstrom, R. et al. A Dead Horse, You Can’t Beat It: Equine Carcass Disposal Laws and Practices. KY J Equine Agric Nat Resources. 2012.
  6. Wells, K. et al. A review of secondary pentobarbital poisoning in scavenging wildlife, companion animals and captive carnivores. J Vet Foren Sci. 2019.
  7. Haskell, S. et al. Waste management: equine carcass disposal. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2003. View Summary
  8. Bonhotal, J. et al. Horse Mortality: Carcass Disposal Alternatives. Cornell Waste Management Institute. 2012.
  9. Kielbasa-Ashtari, A. et al. Carcass rendering systems for farm mortalities: A review. J Environ Eng Sci. 2008.
  10. Wang, T. et al. Optimization of Process Conditions for Infected Animal Tissues by Alkaline Hydrolysis Technology. Proceed Environ Sci. 2016.
  11. USDA. Equine Mortality in the United States, 2015. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. 2017.
  12. AAEP Euthanasia Guidelines. 2021.
  13. Leary, S. et al. AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2020 Edition.