Tuesdays with Tony

There are certain things held sacred here at Springhill Equine. One of those is the mission to make the world a better place for horses. Sometimes that mission means the kindest option we have is euthanasia. Wow, that got heavy in a hurry. The life of a clinic cat isn’t all foals and fun though. There are tough days, too. This week I want to talk about euthanasia since there is a very important drug shortage affecting how we euthanize horses. Don’t worry, my Docs still have very safe, kind, humane ways to be sure your horse doesn’t suffer. It simply might look a little different than it has in the past. 


For reasons which aren’t entirely clear to this cat, pentobarbitol, which is the main ingredient in euthanasia solution, is on backorder. This happens periodically, and as with many of these backorders there isn’t often a clear reason. I’m going to guess they have clinic cats too, and they, as I sometimes do, revel in doing fun things like holding down the escape key with my paw then watching the humans become increasingly frustrated with the weird things the computer is doing. In this case, I imagine it shut down a factory. This is what Teenie and I talk about on weekends. 

Anyway, pentobarbital is an anesthesia drug with the ability to cause the brain and heart to stop when given as an overdose. It has been used for many, many years for this purpose so my Docs have a good feel for how it works, and how horses are going to respond. In general, my Docs give a very large dose, the horse falls asleep, and then passes away over a few minutes. 

The Problems with Pentobarbital

Recently scientists have found a few problems with pentobarbital. The first is groundwater contamination. It’s tough to think about, but when a horse gets buried it slowly decomposes away. Pentobarbital is one of those things that sticks around for a very, very long time, and loves to head for water. This is not something you want happening, especially since many of you humans live on farms with wells. This is one reason several groups who write euthanasia guidelines began discussions on some other options. 

Speaking of pentobarbital sticking around, it also remains very active in the body after death. This becomes an issue if burial or removal of the body is delayed for any reason. Scavengers like vultures, coyotes, and bald eagles, among others (like your dog), are attracted to the body and do what Mother Nature designed them to do. This can be a big problem in areas where the ground freezes in the winter, and burial can’t happen until Spring. I’m going to insert a bit of an aside here that as a sun-loving cat, the thought of ground freezing is awful. Anyway. Scavengers can be affected by pentobarbital and inadvertently killed. 

Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic

The Alternatives

There are many alternatives. The goal of all of them is to allow the horse to pass as peacefully as possible. The three most commonly used by my docs may look a little different, but work very similar to pentobarbital. These are an overdose of potassium chloride, an overdose of magnesium, or an injection of lidocaine into the space around the spinal column. 

All three start by placing your horse under general anesthesia, exactly like that used for surgery. Then the medications are administered, and the horse passes away over the next few minutes, much like they do with pentobarbital. These medications are all safe for the environment and scavengers, if there is an unexpected delay in burial or removal. Gunshot, or captive bolt, is a very humane option if you have someone very knowledgeable about the proper location. The key here is that horses don’t have the psychological trauma of a gun pointed at them. My Docs recommend the horse be sedated to minimize the risk of last-second movement.

After reading a not-so-great article recently about the shortage of pentobarbital, I wanted to assure my readers that my Docs have got a plan in place. They always have the safety and comfort of your horse on their minds. 


Until next week,


P.S. The humans just recorded a podcast that goes into a lot more areas on the topic of euthenasia. If you haven’t become a listener yet, this is a great time to start! You don’t even have to read it, you just listen while you’re riding, or driving, or whatever it is you humans do. You can check it out over on the Podcast Page.

Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Clinic Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at SpringhillEquine.com, or follow us on Facebook!

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