The Right Time?


horse trio

Photography,  Writing,  and Artwork by:  Heather Clemenceau

“Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation” ~ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

If I could choose, all my animals would peacefully die the day after I did,  because arriving at the decision to euthanize and coping with the deaths is just overwhelmingly difficult. The one thing about our attachments to animals that seems horribly unfair is that we almost always outlive our pets too. The short lifespan of cats, dogs, and even horses virtually assures that we will almost always face the loss of our companions. Yet,  we still plan for their continued existence even in death, in the event that they do outlive us.  This is even more true if you own a long-lived animal such as a donkey; the possibility that they might outlive you by many years is highly likely.

For most pet owners, the most difficult part of the decision to euthanize a beloved pet is deciding when. But there is no exact right time, and even if there were, we could never know when it was. So that leaves us with only two possible times for euthanasia: too early or too late. The worst thing we can do is to prolongue humane euthanasia because we are not ready to let our animal go.  Therefore, we have to  find the “ golden mean” between too soon and too late, between premature and overdue.

Bookmark made of braided mane hair

Bookmark made of braided mane hair.  Reading is one of my favourite activities,  so having a bookmark made of Dalrahza’s mane hair always keeps me mindful that she’s still with me and we’re together forever. She’s gone to the Rainbow Bridge,  but I can still touch a part of her.

But if death is not imminent, our conscience tells us we should not euthanize.  This is such a great problem for all pet owners,  but especially horse owners, since horses are more difficult to place into forever homes and costly to maintain if we can’t afford them.  Yet it is so profoundly difficult to contemplate euthanizing healthy horses, even to avoid sending them to slaughter.

Yet the fear of horses going to slaughter is sometimes seen as the impetus to euthanize.  Consider the case of Rosie and June, Percheron draft horses who worked for 15 years at the DuPage County Forest Preserve and are now retirement age.  They have been put up for adoption, but commissioners at the preserve are faced with the moral dilemma of giving them to people who might allow them to ultimately go to slaughter.  If the money cannot be found for their retirement, euthanization remains a possibility, even though they are completely healthy.

The Ministry of Defence in Wales recently defended a decision to put down two guard dogs used to protect the Duke of Cambridge, days after he left his military base for the last time. The dogs were euthanized immediately following Prince William’s final shift as a search-and-rescue pilot at RAF Valley.  The MoD said it always tried to rehome dogs but that it had not been possible in this case. The Dogs Trust charity responded by objecting that dogs were not “disposable kit that can be decommissioned at the end of their useful military life.” Apparently these dogs had some medical or behaviour issues that prevented them from being reassigned to other duties or being retired.  Yet the dogs were somehow able to perform their duties just days before the Duke left his job in Wales.  To me,  putting them to sleep is rather comparable to putting down a bomb-sniffing dog who had worked for years in the field just because there were no more bombs found in that particular area.

Killing a pet, even a problem pet, is a difficult decision.  “Do no harm & relief of suffering” are ethical standards for veterinarians. There are also many pet owners that do not have spare Fall at Deb's 8 x 10 copy_tonemappedthousands of dollars, nor have ability for credit.  And on the flip side, there are many owners that do not value their pet any more than a broken appliance.  Slaugterphiles tell us all the time that they have “killer” horses that must go and many of them will not even begrudge that horse a bullet.

Even with the possibility of slaughter looming, a veterinarian approached to perform euthanasia on a healthy horse would likely be concerned, since they are charged with the humane treatment of animals and are guardians of their welfare – in their own discretion they may refuse such a request.  They would be concerned whether the horse was suffering from a non-obvious life-threatening ailment or just being put-to-sleep out of convenience.  A progressive disease that is not (yet) life threatening or causing discomfort may not warrant euthanasia. They would be correct, but horses are a special circumstance……..

It has always struck me as bizarre to choose the moment of your animal’s death, to make an appointment to have them killed. Yet this is exactly what we often do if and when we decide that euthanasia is needed.  Farmer and horse breeder Rose Reid from Whitby, Ontario euthanizes 4 of her horses for the documentary film “A Century of Horses,” by filmmaker Stefan Morel.  The film is currently showing on Documentary Channel / CBC. It’s both moving and disturbing in that while it’s humane, the viewer is left wondering what prompted the decision to euthanize all these seemingly healthy horses all at once.  She appears to have other horses on her property,  so why did she choose to “triage” these four?  While watching the video, I found myself grappling with the belief that she had made an unforgivable mistake and that her whole thought process was stupid.  Yet I was not faced with her decision-making process, and can’t blithely negate her feelings since I didn’t have to make the decision.

“Morning without you is a dwindled dawn” ~ Emily Dickinson

When I thought back to the euthanasia of my horse Dalrahza, almost four years ago on October 19, 2009,  I realized that anyone looking at her would have seen a horse that appeared healthy in all respects,  good condition and body how long until my retirementscore, clean and well-tended,  and still eating well.  But what they couldn’t have known was how utterly drugged she was in order that she be able to move much at all – the night before I had given her, with veterinary approval, both bute, banamine, and Previcoxx, a powerful NSAID usually given to dogs with arthritis.  I needed her last day on earth to be as pain-free as possible,  and knowing she liked to lie down in her stall at night,  I needed her to be able to get up again. Putting her to sleep meant that I was putting an end to her falling down in the pasture and being unable to rise without help, injuring herself over and over, turning what should have been a few months of lay-up from a deep-digital flexor tendon injury into years of rehab with veterinary specialists but no real result.

I’ve played the timing of her euthanasia in my head over and over many times, wondering whether it was too soon or too late. I was convinced that as long as I continued putting money into treatment,  something would “click” and she’d spontaneously recover. If she could have been safe on her own in the pasture I would have been happy to leave her in retirement. But her age was working against us,  and winters in Ontario are even more difficult for horses that are not steady on their feet.

When we’re faced with making a decision, we always think that the presence of pain is the deciding factor in every case. Surprisingly, pain is a component of only a minority of terminal illnesses.  A horse that cannot be made to be pasture-sound is a rather obvious reason to euthanize,  and they are probably also in pain, but there are other non-specific ailments that are not really painful but are uncomfortable or are situations where the animal has no hope of recovery.  Obviously one justification could be the buildup of toxins in the blood due to the impaired ability of diseased kidneys or liver to remove them from the body, intense fear, or serious depression or refusal to eat.

The minute we learn that our pet has an illness that will progress either to death or unrelievable discomfort, we have to ask ourselves, would we want this operation or therapy, and what about the additional or prolonged pain such treatments may bring? A natural death at the end of many surgeries is rarely kind if it means prolonged pain.

Mane and tail hair saved before euthanasia

Dalrahza’s mane and tail hair saved before euthanasia

For many people, the special significance of death provides a basis for the belief that natural death is preferable to euthanasia. There’s a spiritual impulse to allow nature to “take its course” with one’s pet. A natural death seems to make the pet once again a part of nature. But humane death is one gift that we can give our animals that cannot be given to wild animals,  who often suffer terribly in death.  In nature,  death is often not quick either.

Consider the likely outcome for a rabbit that is attacked by a coyote, or a baby bird that has fallen out of its nest. If it was our animal that was the victim, we would never allow nature to take its course. When natural processes create suffering in our pets that we can relieve, allowing that suffering to continue simply because it is natural seems pretty hard to justify.

In my opinion, perhaps we should not criticize Rose Reid for euthanizing what appear to be healthy horses.  Maybe we should take note of her horses’ good condition as a testament to the exemplary care she seems to have provided.  Losing 4 horses in one day is surely anguish enough. And although she may have been making a business decision in euthanizing 4 horses at once (including a relatively young horse),  she could have sent them to an auction or slaughter instead of providing them with a good death.Driving at Beaverwood5A_tonemapped

At some point in every horse’s life, they get too old to be ridden. They simply don’t enjoy it any more, and even if they do, they are physically unable to continue to carry a rider safely. Being put “out to pasture” is an expression that suggests that the horse is always going to enjoy being out on pasture, when in fact, for some horses, pasture in old age is too hard on them. They may need the mental and physical stimulation that being exercised has provided.

Our most caring option is to subordinate our own interests in favour of the interests of our animal. Sometimes, the inevitability of the aging process can prevent our objective of ensuring everlasting good health for all animals.  But if we are going to err in our timing for euthanasia,   too soon is far better than too late. It makes sense when you realize that it’s better to help a friend a month too soon than an hour too late. This is because “too late” can be really awful for the animal. When all efforts to relieve discomfort fail to provide a reasonable amount of comfort for a pet, it is time to consider euthanasia. If you can consider euthanasia as part of the total care of an animal, euthanasia is not an act to end a life. It is, rather, an act to end your animals’ discomfort.

A Vow to Make to Your Companion Animal

“I will be your loyal companion from this day forward. Even more important, I will be your protector. You have my solemn promise that I will, to the absolute utmost that my strength and resources permit, protect you against all the hurts that life can hold, whether they be physical or emotional. You can depend on me for this. I will never let you down.

And when any hurts become such that all of my efforts cannot effectively alleviate them, I will place your needs above mine, your suffering over my own, and use the only means left to protect you from those hurts. I will deliver you comfort by bringing your pains to an end, not because I will be ready to let go, but because, to protect you, I will have to say goodbye. I know you will count on me at that difficult time to protect you, and I will be there for you, right by your side.

Should my passing come first, you need not worry, because I will have made all the provisions for your care, safekeeping, and happiness.

Fear not, because when death ends our physical togetherness, our emotional bond will never end. You will be a part of my heart forever. I promise.”

dalrahza copy

About heatherclemenceau

Hopefully as I've grown older I've also grown wiser, but one thing I've definitely become cognizant of is the difference between making a living and making a life. Frequently outraged by some of life's cruelties, and respect diversity. But.....I don't suffer fools gladly, and occasionally, this does get me into some trouble! I have the distinction of being the world's worst golfer - no wait, I do believe that there is a gypsy in Moldavia who is a worse golfer than I. Nor am I much of a dancer - you won't see a booty-shakin' flygirl routine from me! I'm also not the kind of cook who can whip up a five-course meal on a radiator either! And I've never figured out how to get an orchid to bloom a second time. I love to discuss literature, science, philosophy, and sci-fi , or even why Seinfeld is funny on so many levels. Words move me. I'm very soft-hearted about most things, especially animals, but I have a stoicism about me that is sometimes interpreted incorrectly. I do have a definite edge and an often "retro-adolescent" sense of humour at times. I'm a big advocate of distributed computing projects to advance science. Check out if you want to find out more. I'm an eclectic plant-based eater, and as such, it's a personal practice of mine to seduce innocent meat-eaters into cruising the (salad) bars at every opportunity. You would be powerless to resist. I was recently surprised to find that a computer algorithm concluded that I write like Dan Brown, which is funny because I didn't think Dan Brown could actually write. Check out your own style - Oh, and I love impractical shoes and funky hats.

27 responses »

  1. I think Rose Reid was being a bit too businesslike in the documentary. Although I agree that they were probably all hard keepers as they aged, they still seemed to have good quality of life. I know I did not see them struggling to get up, but four at one time seemed a bit too convenient for her. I have two with navicular and every day I must evaluate their pain levels and decide when the day will come. But I do not think I will order a job lot and let one see the other lying dead.

    • What struck me was the 9 year old. I felt that blanketing and mashes were not that much of an inconvenience, but again, it’s pretty much a given that 30 year old horses are going to have challenges……..

    • I agree whole heartedly with you. Of course we cannot know all the details by a short video but seeing those horses trotting out….I am sure that they could have been managed until it was truly time to be put down. And that is what you do for an old friend/business partner who worked to pay off your mortgage. I was pretty disgusted. I hope they all had serious “invisible” underlying issues but unfortunately I think it was strictly a business decision…4 more empty stalls = 1,700 a month. Shame on them.

  2. Pingback: The Right Time? | Canadian Horse Defence Coalition's Blog

  3. Heather, great thought-provoking article. I go through the “is it too soon, too late” argument with myself each time I have to let someone go. In over 30 years I’ve had to make that decision 30 times. It’s never easy and you’ll ALWAYS second-guess yourself. I know I do. The only way I’ll ever know if I did the right thing at the right time is when I get to the Bridge. If they’re all waiting for me with weapons then I’ll know! 🙂 But if they’re all there waiting with wags and kisses then I’ll know I did ok.

  4. This came as a surprise in my morning e-mail. It speaks to the very core of my being as I live with my horses, dog and cats, having loved and lost many over the years. This issue weighs heavily on me each and every day. As I brush, hold, feed, play with all of them, the older I get, the harder it is to absorb the sheer joy of being in their presence without also thinking of the days being numbered. I struggle with “Who will go first?” each and every day. There is no easy answer, no easy way out. I couldn’t get past the first few sentences without re-visiting the thread that runs through my mind all the time. I will read the whole article later, when perhaps I am stronger and in a better frame of mind. I lost my true friend, a horse I raised from the moment of birth, a horse who never wavered in his willingness to understand me and who lived to 28 years until I had no choice but to call the vet to put him out of this world. All this almost the day of the anniversary of his passing. I have his grave here and talk to him all the time about my regrets for the times I should have spared more for him, just him. Heather, you are God’s gift to people like me. Thank-you.

    • Thanks for your nice words – I appreciate. Sorry for your loss! I was so thankful for the lifestyle that Dalrahza gave me – I met so many new people who really formed my thought processes. Other people liked riding her too, even though she was challenging – if she had to work, so did I. But I knew the time was nearing when she stopped running with the rest of the herd and stood off by the fenceline watching them. That was really painful to see.

      And had I not met someone who encouraged me to acquire a horse, I wouldn’t have experience any of these things, nor would I have known that horses are slaughtered. Except for a chance encounter with one person, I wouldn’t be involved in the struggle to protect horses.

  5. My Horse’s Wish
    Could you bed me down with kindness, On the soft sweet words of love…
    Could you ride me in Man’s finest, With hands light as a dove….
    Could you teach me with old wisdom, By the laws of just & fair….
    Could you be my friend forever, with a trust so true & rare….
    Could you meet me on the morrow, With grasses green & sweet….
    Could you free me without sorrow, On the plains of loam & wheat…
    Could you say farewell with honor, On the day my life is through….
    And remember me Forever, As I shall remember YOU.
    Barbara Dunn-Reeves

    • Here is another one – capable of reducing one to utter mush. Sorry I don’t know without looking who wrote it –

      “If it should be that I grow frail and weak and pain should keep me from my sleep,Then will you do what must be done, for this — the last battle — can’t be won.

      You will be sad I understand, but don’t let grief then stay your hand, For on this day, more than the rest, your love and friendship must stand the test.

      We have had so many happy years, you wouldn’t want me to suffer so. When the time comes, please, let me go.

      Take me to where to my needs they’ll tend, Only, stay with me till the end.

      And hold me firm and speak to me Until my eyes no longer see. I know in time you will agree it is a kindness you do to me.

      Although my tail its last has waved, From pain and suffering I have been saved. Don’t grieve that it must be you who has to decide this thing to do. We’ve been so close — we two — these years, Don’t let your heart hold any tears.”

  6. I had a gray Arab that I let go Oct 16, 2011. He was 34. Had him for 26 years. We were best friends. He too got where he was not safe to be able to get up if he lay down. In his mind he was not ready to go but his body disagreed. The love and the tears will never end. His spirit comes to visit still. He will leave me a little sign like the white hairs I turned and found in the aisle way of the barn on Memorial Day. Letting him go was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. The pics in this post remind me so much of him. RIP RifRaf. I still pray that I did the right thing by him and his Spirit understands why I let him go.

    • @Betty, that is almost two years to the day after Dalrahza died. I had the same observation about Dalrahza – other than being unsteady on her feet with one bad leg, she ate well and seemed happy. I’ve avoided washing some blankets I have – because I know that the white hairs will gradually be swept away. They used to drive me nuts but now I look at them with awe.

  7. Love this Heather-it touched my heart as I have been there so many times. there is almost always that self-doubt after”did I do the right thing..was it the right time?” there is no answer of course, but as long as we follow what our heart tells us is right for our friends, this is the best we can do.

    • Either way, I feel I am the coward. I’m not brave enough to weather it, to feel I made the right choice, to forget it and move on. I go through the motions but deep down I think I’ll never understand why we have them for such a short time. All I can do is try to make a good life for the ones that are still with me. I wish I could do so much more. I’m so glad for Heather’s words and for people who also appreciate her.

      • I met all my horses when they were in the double-digits. I wish I had known them earlier, along with the special people that I met through them. We’re always parted too soon.

      • My heart, too, always says no for I know how much I’ll miss thier companionship. I won’t be able to touch them and hug them and tell them how much I love them. Yes, we know when it is time even when we don’t want to. It is never a decision made lightly but it is a decision made of love. I have never owned horses, only dogs and cats but I think the decision applies to all our beloved companion animals. Thank you for your very caring and compassionate article, Heather.

  8. What an absolutely beautiful horse! Actually, beautiful is an insufficient description. I understand the heartache of making that difficult decision. We still grieve the loss of their soul in our lives, though the essence of their spirit remains with us always.

  9. Hi Heather: wow what a post…euthanasia is an extremely difficult topic to discuss, but your post all the more struck a chord in me as I had my beloved horse, Flash, euthanized last summer. I really appreciate how you stress the “When is the right time?” for euthanasia. In Flash’s case, he was 28 and he’d been diagnosed with Cushing’s five years before. It was only the last 18 months of his life that we all noticed a marked physical change: he lost a lot of weight, though never his appetite. My once muscular quarter horse became thin in a short amount of time, but his cheerful personality never changed. In the last days of his life, he would still trot up to the gate to greet me, and even roll. But, as my vet stressed, it was only a matter of time before something horrible would happen. We’d all done our best to increase his weight, but to no avail. I like what you call the “golden mean,” and I feel that I was lucky in that regard. We put him to sleep in July of last year, after enjoying the happiest and most poignant summer together. I’ve always spoiled my horse, but his last summer on earth he was especially spoiled rotten. I have no regrets in the “when,” as he went out a happy pony, and I have only wonderful memories of him: no pain, no emergency, no incidents. That summer gave me time to say my goodbye. Not everyone is so lucky. As painful as it is to consider euthanasia, it is the truly merciful option rather than “letting nature take its course.”

    • Sorry to hear about your horse – he lived a long life and you did pre-empt any possible suffering. His cushings and weight lost provided you with a lot of “foreshadowing” that he was in decline and allowed you to take months to say your goodbyes. These are the best possible outcomes for an older horse – no suffering with laminitis or founder. Thank you for maintaining the qualify of his life and giving him his best, last year…..

      • Hi Heather, thank you for your kind words. It was a beautiful perfect last summer we had for which I am forever thankful. My apologies for getting back to you just now, I only just saw my reply hadn’t posted for whatever reason.

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