Sudden death occurs for just 12.5 percent of equids in Britain, according to researchers, which highlights the need for many owners to eventually make important end-of-life decisions for their equines.
However, even though only one in eight horses and donkeys will meet their end suddenly, around two-thirds of owners who had not previously lost an equine did not have a plan in place, findings showed.
The research also revealed that end-of-life decisions were not just for older animals, with the number of equids who died aged 7-10 being similar to those aged 26-30.
Three years of in-depth research into owners’ attitudes towards end-of-life matters were revealed at the recent British Equine Veterinary Association Congress.
The study was coordinated by Advancing Equine Scientific Excellence (AESE) and supported by the charities World Horse Welfare and The Donkey Sanctuary.
The research, the first of its kind in Britain, involved students from 13 institutions who collected data from 2678 participants using a combination of in-depth interviews, focus groups and an online survey.
Not only did the research set out to develop the knowledge-base in relation to why owners did or did not feel able to make equine end-of-life decisions and the thought process undergone to arrive at these, but it also looked to determine what additional information and support was required to help owners in making these decisions.
The key influence in owners’ end-of-life decisions was their own assessment of quality of life, but many felt they needed more support in doing so, with around half of owners wanting more information on this. That being the case, World Horse Welfare is now inviting vets to collaborate on a quality of life tool which will provide support for owners in assessing their individual equine.
AESE study co-ordinator Dr Georgina Crossman, said it had been a worthwhile exercise to ask for students to collect the responses.
The students, she said, had done an amazing job gathering data for the study and in doing that they also learned a lot about the challenges faced by horse owners which would help them in their careers.
“We have been able to use the information collected to develop practical advice and tools to support horse owners in making difficult decisions which in many cases is the ultimate kind gesture they can make for a much-loved friend.”
World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers said end of life issues were difficult for both owners and their vets.
“So this research is vital in helping us to better understand attitudes and the various factors which can influence the decisions of owners at the end of an equid’s life.
“Delayed death has long been a key welfare problem facing the UK’s equine population and in fact, was identified as one of four key challenges in the Horses in our Hands research report compiled by the University of Bristol in July last year, so this research is a positive step forward in helping tackle the issue.
“Our existing Just in Case materials are available to help owners with information and planning around end of life matters,” Owers said. They can be ordered through the World Horse Welfare website.
“But this research has identified a real need to support owners in assessing quality of life and this is a project we look forward to developing with the Donkey Sanctuary over the coming months.”
Dr Faith Burden, who is research director at The Donkey Sanctuary, helped coordinate the research project to ensure donkeys and mules were fully represented in the study.
“We were able to reach out to our network of donkey owners and practitioners to ask for their help examining attitudes to end-of-life issues.
“Euthanasia is an important final act in the care of any animal; it is always a painful decision but one that should be taken at the right time when their quality of life deteriorates.
“Assessing quality of life can be difficult, this is particularly true for donkeys who are stoic in nature and often hide signs of pain.
“The findings of this study will help us to better support donkey and mule owners dealing with difficult ‘end-of-life’ issues – ultimately finding the right time to prevent suffering.”
Institutions who participated in the research were Askham Bryan College, Canterbury Christ Church University with the University of Sussex, Duchy College, Hadlow College, Harper Adams University, Hartpury College, Myerscough College, Plumpton College, Reaseheath College, Royal Agricultural University, Sparsholt College, University of Plymouth, Writtle College.