|Tough DecisionsSaying Goodbye|
by Beth A. Valentine, DVM, PhD
As much as we hate to think about it, at some point almost every
horse owner has to face some pretty tough decisions regarding a horse's health
and well being. Although no one can be fully prepared for the inevitable
life-or-death decisions, some thinking and planning ahead can make things a bit
easier. Rationally assessing the possibilities, and making difficult decisions,
is easier done before the need arises. Waiting until your horse is severely ill
or injured makes the decision a lot tougher.
The decision to end the suffering of a horse with a badly broken leg,
or in severe and constant pain due to founder, is emotionally trying. But in
such circumstances the right decision will probably be clear.
What about a horse that becomes ill and requires intensive care or
surgery? We all like to do everything possible for our horses, but the reality
is that such care can become prolonged and agonizing for the horse,
heart-wrenching for you and, let's face it, expensive. You need to weigh many
factors, including the horse's pain and suffering, its likelihood of recovery,
your finances, your barn setup, and your lifestyle. Your veterinarian will do
his or her best to help you make the right decision, but ultimately the decision
When a horse becomes ill, extensive testing may be needed to
determine the cause. Equine medicine is particularly vexing, as it is so
difficult to see inside a horse to know what's wrong. Starting with a summary of
the horse's history and a physical examination, your veterinarian will try to
home in on the source of the problem.
If the problem is in the chest or abdomen, listening from the
outside, or feeling through the wall of the rectum during a rectal examination,
give only some idea of what might be going on. An analysis of fluid tapped from
the chest or abdomen, and the testing of blood, urine, and manure may provide
additional answers. But until horses learn to talk, veterinarians have to use
all other available information to try to come to some conclusions. If the
problem is severe or particularly perplexing, your veterinarian's best advice
may be to bring the horse to an equine referral center.
Such facilities vary in their charges for hospitalization, but none
is free. After-hours emergency fees add to the bill. Medical treatment costs for
a draft horse can be quite high. With the exception of sedatives, the amount of
medication needed to treat a draft is far greater than is needed for a light
horse. Even something as simple and basic as intravenous fluid therapy can run
into hundreds of dollars per day for a big horse. If your horse needs surgery,
such as for colic, the cost can run into thousands of dollars.
I'm not trying to sound cold-hearted, just realistic. Your
veterinarian will quote you the likely costs for diagnosis and treatment, and
will offer as many options as possible. Costs may change as more information is
gathered, as well as when/if your horse responds to therapy. Your veterinarian
will try to give you as accurate a prognosis (from the Greek, meaning "to
see into the future") for recovery as is possible.
If your horse will likely survive an injury or medical condition, but
will be in continuous pain, you must weigh your emotional needs against the
horse's needs. If your horse will likely survive, but will no longer be able to
perform, you must decide if you or someone you know is willing and able to take
on a pasture ornament. You will likely think harder about subjecting an elderly
horse to the stress of abdominal surgery and recovery than you would for a
Thinking ahead can make some of these decisions easier. Try to decide
beforehand what your financial limit is. Assess your situation critically. You
may be able to afford the cost of abdominal surgery, but are you set up to
create a hospital-like situation in your barn during the recovery period? Are
you, or is someone you know, able to administer the necessary after care?
The decision to go ahead or to give up may depend on your horse's
will to live, outlook for recovery, anticipated quality of life, your financial
situation, or any combination of these factors, all of which are equally valid.
When it comes time to make a tough decision, listen to your heart, your
pocketbook, your family and friends, your veterinarian and, sometimes most of
all, your horse.
Beth A. Valentine, DVM, PhD,
is a veterinary pathologist at the Oregon State University College of Veterinary
Medicine in Corvallis, this site's virtual vet, and co-author of
Horses, an Owner's Manual.
This article appeared in the