The mental health of horses is often not factored into euthanasia decisions – study

"Physical issues, including even mild lameness, are more likely to factor in an end-of-life decision than issues relating to mental health."
“Physical issues, including even mild lameness, are more likely to factor in an end-of-life decision than issues relating to mental health.” Image by Rebecca Schönbrodt-Rühl

Owners appear to consider a limited set of welfare factors when assessing quality of life, in advance of deciding whether to euthanise their horses, according to researchers.

“Physical issues, including even mild lameness, are more likely to factor in an end-of-life decision than issues relating to mental health,” Catherine Bell and Suzanne Rogers reported in the journal Animals.

Horse owners, they said, are less likely to account for subtle welfare issues, potentially leading to the delay of euthanasia and prolonged suffering.

“Even if issues are noticed, it cannot be assumed that the implication of those observations will be understood or considered relevant to the welfare of the horse.”

Bell and Rogers, with the Equine Behaviour and Training Association in Britain, set out in their study to explore the attitudes of the equestrian public to equine end-of-life decisions.

The pair noted that delayed death has been identified as a key welfare concern for Britain’s horse, leading to prolonged suffering.

Previous studies have identified common reasons for delaying euthanasia, including financial cost, emotional attachment, peer pressure, negative attitudes towards killing, and poor recognition of behavioural indicators of equine pain and stress.

The researchers used the well-recognised Five Freedoms welfare framework, described below, to create a survey, compiling a list of 30 hypothetical — yet common — scenarios that would affect the overall quality of life of a horse.

Participants, mostly recruited online via equestrian Facebook groups, were asked to indicate to what extent each scenario would have a bearing on an overall decision whether or not to euthanise a horse.

After considering each scenario, respondents had to indicate whether it would strongly increase, slightly increase, slightly decrease or strongly decrease the likelihood that they would decide to euthanise the horse. They could also decide that a scenario would have no bearing on the decision.

They were also asked if they had ever had a horse euthanised and to give the reasons.

Bell and Rogers received responses from 160 people.

The predominant attitude was that most scenarios had no bearing on a decision to euthanise. Participants were most likely to consider euthanasia for physical issues, and this was supported by the experiences of those who had had their horses put down.

Only a small number of respondents also included consideration of emotional state of the animal or behavioural factors.

“It was not clear whether this was due to disregard for welfare issues relating to mental health or failure to recognise them as such.”

The authors said the findings suggest that welfare issues concerning the emotional state of animals or their behaviour are at risk of being omitted from end-of-life decision-making.

“When asked to state their reasons for euthanising their horses, participants cited almost exclusively physical reasons, with the exception of those citing dangerous behaviour.”

In all, 123 of the participants gave information relating to the euthanasia of 211 horses.

“Some participants justified their decision on the basis of advice from a professional, typically a veterinarian, recommending euthanasia; conversely, one respondent regretted not euthanising sooner but had instead followed veterinary advice to attempt to prolong life.

“Others were much more able to ‘own’ the decision, with comments such as ‘I won’t have a horse in pain’.

“The majority just stated the relevant ailments. In almost all cases, the reasons given for euthanasia were predominantly for physical issues that would have otherwise contravened ‘Freedom from pain, injury and disease’.”

Eleven horses were euthanised because of behaviour described as dangerous or aggressive.

The finding of previous studies that pain-related conditions, particularly lameness and colic, are the most common reasons for euthanising horses was confirmed by the study, in both the responses to the hypothetical scenarios and the participants’ accounts of their own experiences.

The authors noted that some participants — albeit a small number — did consider the mental health of their horses.

“Euthanasia due to a recognition that horses would struggle with necessary box-rest or loss of a companion indicated that ‘Freedom from fear and distress’ and/or ‘Freedom to express normal behaviour’ were considerations that were included in the overall decision to euthanise.”

The authors found that evidence of depression in a horse would strongly increase the chances of deciding to euthanise for 15.6% of participants, although this would seem much higher than the previous finding of 2.7% who actually euthanised for depression.

“While it is unlikely that mental health issues alone will be a common reason for euthanasia, it was reassuring to see that at least a small number of participants had explicitly recognised that depression, distress, loss of companions and box rest were significant factors reducing equine quality of life.”

Bell and Rogers said the results of their study should be used to inform educational welfare programs and identify themes to be followed up in more targeted future research.

Bell, C.; Rogers, S. Attitudes of the Equestrian Public towards Equine End-of-Life Decisions. Animals 2021, 11, 1776.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

The Five Freedoms framework:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst;
  • Freedom from discomfort;
  • Freedom from pain, injury or disease;
  • Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour;
  • Freedom from fear and distress.

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