Monday, May 11, 2009

Equine ethical dilemmas: What would you do?

Warning: This is a heart-on-the-sleeve kind of post. Got your tissue-box handy?

Note: Pix are temporarily unavailable...

A good friend of mine, Dacia, has a fourteen year old Oldenburg mare, pictured above. Her name is Weltgewandt, or Wanda. Wanda is a special girl, for many reasons. She was one of the highest scoring Oldenburg mares in the U.S. the year she did her performance test. Her bloodlines are impressive, and she has jumping talent and competed through 3rd level before becoming a broodmare. Wanda is one of those horses with charisma -- corny as it sounds, you can look in her eyes and see a soul. Dacia fell in love with this horse when she worked on a breeding farm, and they had a special bond. She spent her life savings buying Wanda, and she's produced two lovely babies that Dacia still owns.

Wanda's illness
About three weeks ago, Wanda started showing signs of laminitis -- second bout of in 3 years. The first time was minor, but this one is bad, and getting worse. She is lying down most of the time, her coffin bone has rotated significantly, and the hoof capsule is at risk of sloughing off. Three local vets have urged Dacia to put Wanda down.

Dacia is distraught but not ready to give up. She's going against the advice of vets and also friends in the local horse community. A lot of well-meaning people, most who have not seen Wanda in person are telling her she is being selfish and cruel. Dacia looks at her mare and doesn't see a horse that is ready to quit.

Things can always get worse
The situation has recently taken a turn for the worse -- Wanda is showing signs of kidney failure. Dacia is awaiting lab results and the most recent x-rays, but she has is making plans to transport her horse to a special vet facility in Virgina that specializes in treating laminitis using non-traditional methods. That's a seven hour drive for a desperately sick horse. This practice seems to be outside the mainstream the veterinary community, and some vets she spoke with implied the director is a little "out there." The clinic and the veterinary/director were recently featured in a major horse publication, and the center does seem to have had success with difficult cases.

What would you do?
So now you probably know as much of the situation as I do. Dacia has asked my opinion. I have not seen the mare, but I told her what I thought based on the information she had.

What advice would you give her? Dacia knows I'm posting this, but she's not waiting with bated breath for blog readers to tell her what to do. We both feel know she isn't the only horse owner to face this. What kinds of advice will help horse owners do the right thing? I'm praying for Dacia and Wanda and hope you will too.


  1. Aww... this is always such a tough decision with any animal we love. In the end, though, I think it's important to remember that we're here to care for them, and make sure they're happy, comfortable and not suffering.

    Sometimes the hardest decision is the best one. But that's one she'll have to come to peace with on her own. If Wanda is still happy, I think it's OK to let her keep fighting and making your friend happy by continuing to be around. If Wanda's happiness is fading, though, sometimes happy memories are the most comforting thing in the world... :)

    I hope this helps. I'll keep all you in my thoughts.

  2. A seven hour trip for a horse with laminitis? I'd have to wonder whether that was going to be worth it.

  3. I've been a vet tech for 10years (small animals) and this decision is always hard. I recently had 2 cats with cancer. Their diagnosis wasn't good, but they still were happy,comfortable, and seemed happy to get up every day. Then one day I looked at one and saw he wasn't happy to get up and knew it was time. One of the vets I worked with has a good saying in helping with this:"Is your animal getting up every day because they want to or because they think you want them to and they're trying to please you?" This helped me put it in perspective and made the decision easier. I hope this helps a little! You're in my thoughts.

  4. Very hard call for her to make - she's the one that has to make it - none of us can as it isn't our horse. The questions I would ask, if she were my horse (I've been there with a horse with a fracture) - what is the likely prognosis - how comfortable will the horse be in the end? Is the process of getting from where you are now to where you'd like to be (the prognosis with treatment) worth the cost to the horse - will the horse be able (temperment, etc.) to tolerate the treatment? If the odds are good, the horse's pain can be managed during treatment and the horse has the temperment to tolerate treatment, then go for it - if not euthanize. As I said, she's the one with the responsibility to make the decision.

  5. I agree with Amanda. I've never owned a horse or had to put one down, but I have had other beloved four legged friends and it's not an easy decision to make. But, I think that if an animal has stopped fighting and is completely miserable, there comes a point where we have to set our own pain aside and let them go. Thinking of your friend tonight :(.

  6. Vets/farriers gave up on my mare 5 yrs ago, said coffin bone due to penetrate. I was put in contact with Dr Robert Bowker who heads up MSU's Equine Hoof Clinic and he referred me to farrier Keith Seeley. We emailed my mare's xrays and photos of her feet and Keith masterminded her trim, long distance. Had to find a local trimmer whose ego would let them trim to someone else's protocol but it worked mare is barefoot, crossing rock and galloping on or acreage. Used foam rubber pads inside deluxe equine slippers to keep her comfortable during abscessing.

    In Wanda's case they will have to make management changes after they figure out why she's lamanitic. Suggest they join the equine cushings list... good info on emergency diet, trim protocol and SAFE tests (NOT the dex suppression test which runs risk of triggering laminitis).

    Hope this helps.

  7. Re the kidney failure: VERY important to keep Wanda well hydrated ... pain makes them drink less. My mare drank warm "soup" made with a little feed AND had wet hay in front of her 24/7. She picked hay out of a tub of water. That's the only hay she had.

  8. If Wanda were mine, I would send her (or her x-rays and lab results, if she can't travel) to one of the major university centers. How far are you from New Bolton? My experience is that the large university-associated vet clinics have the widest range of experience and tend to be on top of the latest research.

  9. There have been many discussions about when the right time is if one of our animals is in pain. I remember that someone wrote, "I'd rather be a little too early, than be too late and know the horse suffered when I could have prevented it."

    The question might be, is your friend waiting for Wanda to be ready, or for herself to be ready?

    Euthanasia is the one gift we can give to the animals that give so much to us.

  10. I asked my mare to let me know when I needed to let her go.

    She was my friend, confidante, and hunter/jumper partner. She became a teacher and Pony Club mount who introduced many girls to the world of horses. She eventually had some stiffness issues, not unexpected at 28. But the major problem was her increasingly labored breathing.

    The look in her eye told me that she was ready to move on. Heaven knows, I didn't want to say goodbye. But I honored her, and she was so content her last day.

    Letting go of a companion animal is one of the hardest decisions we ever make. I think if we set aside our wants, they'll somehow let us know when they're ready to move on to the next plane of existence.

  11. My Russell R. made the decision for me with his laminitis. He went down one night and could not get back up. Ironically, it was the very day that I had come to a final decision to euthanize him because of his pain. He ended up making a dreadful choice much easier for me.

    I've always found with my animals that usually they "tell" me when it's time by essentially giving up. I don't know Wanda, of course, nor how much of a fighter she is.

    My heart goes out to your friend. I am sure she wants to give her beloved and beautiful mare every opportunity to survive. Hopefully, Wanda has given her signs that that is what she wants too. I wish them both the best.

  12. I too had a horse to founder, I hauled him three hours from home and he handled it fine. He took a turn for the worse also, but he made it through it all. The vet put heart bar shoes on him. To relive the pressure on his feet! My horse was 15 at the time and now he is 27 and doing fine. It was touch and go for a while, but he made it through it. I still have the horse. Shari

  13. Based on the facts you gave us, if it were my horse, I would most likely have them humanely euthanized at this point. Not knowing the horse, of course, I really can't say for sure if it is the right thing at this point. Animals are fairly good at hiding discomfort, especially prey animals, like horses. But as an owner we are charged with observing what they silently tell us and weighing that with what vets tell us. Are they still happy? Do they still enjoy life? What are the prospects for improvement? That is what I would consider, were I in this predicament. Whatever your friend decides to do, it won't be easy, but it is good she has support.

  14. Having a horse who was given a death sentence for his laminitic and rotated feet, I understand her feelings. That was 5 or 6 years ago. He is doing great now. He has equine metabolic disorder now and wears a muzzle. I have a wonderful barefoot farrier. My horse gets no grain. The supplement Equipride (given to Barbaro also), has saved his life. However, he did not have kidney failure. That is serious business. I pray she will have wisdome what to do.

  15. ....had it not been for the fact that when she looks at her mare, she doesn't see that ready-to-give-up look, I would have suggested that it's time to think about euthanization. However, I've always found that there's a very distinct look in their eyes, a look
    that tells you, without question, that it's time. On the other hand,
    I encourage her to assess the whole picture as it might help to weigh the facts, even the long trailer ride to the clinic could further impact her mare. I feel so bad when I hear these stories because we all know how extremely agonizing these decisions can be.

    A very wise-sage-of-a-Vet once told me and I quote, "Our animals depend on us to make the right decisions for them" and I say, "Ain't that the truth!". I can't even begin to remember how many times those meaningful words helped me get through my animal's health issues and I pray that this
    quote might offer her the same solace that it did for me. Please tell your friend that a lot of people are praying for a positive outcome!

  16. I don't know what advice to give to Dacia, this is such a hard thing to comment on but I will say this; I do know that the owner knows what is best. So many times people offer their outspoken opinions, forgetting that they do not know the horse like the owner does.

    Just know Dacia that you, of anyone else, know your horse best. Listen to her and your instincts and you'll make the right decision.

    My best to you, I'll keep Wanda in my thoughts. :)

  17. "her coffin bone has rotated significantly, and the hoof capsule is at risk of sloughing off". . if that is the case, it is time to put the mare down. She may have a great soul/personality, but she really does not understand what is going on other then she is in extreme pain. Horse behavior that consists of laying down for extended periods actually IS the horse's way of telling you they are giving up. Horses are still very primal. . .a flight animal that is laying down is a dead animal. The mare already knows that.

    It is a terrible thing and I have had to assist in several euths in my life. It is never easy to put down a horse. . that being said, all the horses were sick and in pain. I never worried that we did the wrong thing. Traveling a hurting animal 7 hours is cruel. Meds will wear off during the trip and for several hours she will probably end up laying on the floor of a trailer in pain.

  18. Is the Bolten Clinic in PA any closer? They are the folks that cared for Barbaro after his track injury and Laminitis set in. They even have a pool for the animals to recover from surgey in. Just a thought.

  19. Vets/farriers gave up on my mare 5 yrs ago, said coffin bone due to penetrate. I was put in contact with Dr Robert Bowker who heads up MSU's Equine Hoof Clinic and he referred me to farrier Keith Seeley. We emailed my mare's xrays and photos of her feet and Keith masterminded her trim, long distance. Had to find a local trimmer whose ego would let them trim to someone else's protocol but it worked mare is barefoot, crossing rock and galloping on or acreage. Used foam rubber pads inside deluxe equine slippers to keep her comfortable during abscessing.

    In Wanda's case they will have to make management changes after they figure out why she's lamanitic. Suggest they join the equine cushings list... good info on emergency diet, trim protocol and SAFE tests (NOT the dex suppression test which runs risk of triggering laminitis).

    Hopefully her kidney function tests will improve if you can keep her well hydrated. Pain makes them less inclined to drink. I gave my mare warm/hot (depending on weather) water with some feed dissolved in it - 4-6 times a day. She had wet hay in front of her 24/7 ... she ate it out of a tub of water. (Yes it was a hassle to drag the tub out and dump it, but a small price to pay). Everything she had increased her fluid intake. ALSO wellsoaked beet pulp.

    Laminitis is painful. So are a lot of other things that horses suffer from. My mare never wanted to give up. Their eyes tell you. I kept her fairly comfortable on rubber pads in slippers - I duct taped the soles of the slippers and turned her out. Once the trim is properly balanced, then EASY movement is good - no lunging, no hard turns. Sometimes grazing muzzles are needed.

    There's often abscessing after a laminitic attack. This is very painful but the foam rubber pads help.

    Another list that may be helpful is the equiine founder list:

    Hope this helps.

  20. The pony that I competed a few years ago suddenly came in with terrible laminitis one day. We tried almost everything - the vet kept saying that we should see how he is 'tomorrow'.
    He wouldn't eat and started to show signs of kidney and liver failure. The vet said he'd come back that evening to see how he was gettting on, but the pony died in the mean time, in a lot of pain.

    The owner of the pony was distraught - not only had she lost a pony, but he'd died in a great deal of pain when he could have been put down. The vet should have known that he wouldn't make it - I think there is little you can do once the internal organs start failing, and the kindest thing would be to make sure that there isn't any pain.
    Really hard thing to do when the horse is so lovwed though, hence why the owners of this pony kept listening to the vet.

  21. Sometimes 'out there' is just a concept the rest of us haven't caught up with. If Dacia sees that Wanda isn't ready to go, and she is satisfied that the vet concerned is acting with informed integrity,and has investigated her credentials and spoken to clients, I think she should follow her heart - she is closest to the situation and I'm guessing she's no fool.

    There are many stories in the barefoot communities about horses given up on by traditional modalities being brought back to health. And while this woman (the vet) isn't a barefooter, she does have success stories. There are many roads to Rome ...

    Good luck with a horribly difficult decision. My Cushings pony, though not as compromised as Wanda, is now, with specific management (see TB in Oklahoma), a happy camper.

  22. If your friend isn't ready yet and wants to give something off the beaten path a try I say more power to her. Everyone told me my horse Gennyral would be dead in 1 year. I looked into his eyes and knew I could save him. One friend told me, "It is time for a horse as good as Gen to go ane be with God now" To which I answered that God couldn't have him yet because he was still my horse. Every single day I had a handful of people at the barn tell me to put him down. I knew that as long as I could tell them why I wasn't doing it I was okay. I knew if the day ever came when I had no answer for them it was time to say good bye. Lucky for me my horse who had "100% mortality rate within 1 year of this injury" is now over 2 years past and doing well. On the other hand I lost a mare I leased for years and years this summer. Heart went in for eye surgery and coming out of anesthesia was left unattended and broke her leg. My trainer wanted to try and save her because looking at the mare eyes we knew it wasn't time. We brought her home on a stressful trailer ride and despite our best precautions they hospital we brought her to had made a mistake in her cast when they put it on. Not being able to put weight on her leg caused her to founder. 6 days after Heart was brought home you could look in her eye and see that the was hurting and she was done. It was time. My trainer knew.

    So I will send lots of prayers to your friend and her horse. I know what it is like to have everyone tell you to let go. It is your friends choice though and if she wants to do it I say go ahead. It is her time and money. And as for the old line, "but the horse is suffering", yes she is is right now, but there are a lot of horses in the world who suffer who have no end in sight. As long as it is not a life of suffering I say give it a chance. If she can get better and not be in pain at some point in the near future why not endure for a little bit longer.

  23. I was the manager for a TB farm for 8 years and we had the most wonderful mare I ever met founder. I struggled to keep that mare alive and comfortable for a year but the owners did not want to put her down because of her race record and pedigree. It was so hard for me because this horse had the kind of will to live and personality like your friends mare. I sat many nights with her head in my lap because she was in too much pain to stand, just stroking her face. She went to New Bolton, we tried all sorts of new and experimental treatments - nothing worked. I begged the owner to put her down as much as I loved her. She got an infection that turned gangrenous and he finally made the desicion. I was sad but she had been in so much pain for so long. That one year of pain was all for nothing.

  24. Almost ten years ago, I read an article in Paso Fino Horse World about a laminitic horse that survived. He and his owners had quite an ordeal. His hooves did fall off and he had to be bandaged and kept in a sling for a while. However, he grew new hoof and recovered. The owners could afford both the time and the vet bills. I have to admit, if my horse ever ended up with a case that severe I'd try to scrape together both to get him through it.

    Good luck to your friend!

  25. I second the Equine Cushings/IR list TB in Ok mentioned. They have a very well-tested protocol for dealing with severe laminitic cases and I suspect will be able to offer advice based in experience.

    Meanwhile, I am sending good thoughts and hope for the best outcome.

  26. A friend of mine has found Chinese herbs to be tremendously helpful for her laminitic mare, a mare that the vets suggested be put down. That might be something for your friend to explore. Perhaps she might also consider some Reiki. Reiki won't cure the underlying conditions, but it may offer some emotional and spiritual support while your friend and her mare go through this terribly trying time. (I'm not sure if my email will be visible to you, but if you'd like links to the information I've mentioned, just let me know.)

    I wish your friend and her mare all the best in this very difficult time.

  27. So sorry for your friend. We had a horse founder at our barn and it was touch and go for a long time. It's heartbreaking to watch.

    I guess the unanswered question for me is whether or not the local vets are speaking from a depth of experience with founder. My understanding, after watching someone go through it, is that you really need a vet who has a thorough understanding and a good success rate at treating founder. We were lucky to have such a vet as our primary vet and he was amazing.

    Has your friend thought about using a horse transporter who specializes in injured/sick horses? When Kroni needed to be transported to Tufts the MSPCA equine rescue unit took him. At that point he couldn't stand and was put on a sled to bring him there while prone. The folks who do this are expert at transporting horses who need that extra care with the minimum amount of stress.

    Good luck!

  28. I feel so much for both Wanda and her owner, and understand her reluctance to put down her beloved horse.

    I think I would have been swayed slightly when my horse showed signs of deterioration.

    Whilst running the risk of sounding horribly blunt, it does sound to me like Wanda's going down fighting. It's admirable, and if she was a less determined horse I'm sure the decision to put her down would have been easier, but if she's lived her whole live in this strong mindset, is she really going to change in illness that she won't realise is so serious?

    The point of the matter is, she is still ill, and getting worse physically. Subjecting her to lengthy treatments is unfair if she is in pain (even if she is determined).

    I know this will make little difference, but I was just offering my opinion. Good luck. I'll support both horse and owner through any decision that is made.

    Kathy x

  29. I would probably put her down at this stage, but I know what it's like to fight to save your horse's life; I had to put down my beautiful boy last Christmas after trying everything.

    I would just be very trepidatious about putting this horse in a trailer for seven hours, given that she wants to lie down most of the time; I can't imagine what a painful trip that might be.

    Oh, and just being pedantic here, but it's "bated" breath, not "baited"; short for "abated", as in catching your breath in amazement or expectancy.

  30. Hey anonymous, thanks for the correction, but...

    Come'n talk to me when you're working a full-time job, part-time at a barn, keeping two horses at barns an hour apart from one another and thirty minutes from your house, and putting out a post a day ;-)

    I also misspelled mneumonic in my most recent posted but managed to catch it. Things get missed in the interest of crankin'em out.

  31. Love your blog and didn't mean to offend. I did call myself out for being pedantic!

  32. Is it possible to retrieve some eggs from her? I may get some grief from others because of suggesting this, but perhaps if you both know that the possibility of more foals who carry that special spark may make the parting (if it needs to take place) a little easier.

    I recently read of a man who was a teenager when diagnosed with cancer, and his mother wisely had his semen stored. Now, decades later, he is a father. He beat the cancer and hopefully Wanda will beat this.

    Whatever decision you make will be the right one. Just the fact that you are willing to open your soul and private doubts and sufferings to strangers tells me that.

  33. Anon, you just caught me at a bad moment -- I also like words used properly, and I'm quick to feel smug when someone writes affect when they mean effect :-). Forgive my late night ego!

  34. Mare, what a GREAT idea. I wonder how long the eggs can last if frozen. Dacia only has room for 3 horses and she still has the two babies (2 and 3 years old). I'll have to ask her...

  35. Nobody knows Wanda like her owner does. If she looks at Wanda and thinks that Wanda is still fighting, then I say keep fighting! If she can afford to try experimental treatments, then do it as long as Wanda wants to hang in there. I went through this recently with a horse I've known for several years. She had arthritis and really started struggling getting up and down. We were able to keep her going for 4 months because it was obvious that she was still hanging in there. One day, we almost couldn't get her up, and when we finally did the look in her eye had changed. She didn't want to eat or be touched. It was very clear she was done.

    I don't think anybody can tell your friend when that moment is. She knows Wanda best, and as long as Wanda keeps fighting she should let her if she wants. But when it becomes clear that Wanda is done, it's time to let her go.

    I'm all about hoping for miracles like OnTheBit has had with Genny - proving doctors wrong. It happens all the time!

    Please be sure to let us know how things turn out, Stacey.

  36. This is, I think, the toughest choice we have to make with animals. Only her owner can make that call. And I pray people are kind to her about the decision, whatever direction it takes.

    Over the years I've had to make this choice with three horses.

    In all honesty, it was the best choice for two, and the wrong choice for one.

    That, I think, is the horrible risk we take in caring for our beloved horses. There's the chance we'll make the wrong choice when the stakes are high. (Whatever the choice is...waited too long, didn't wait long enough.)

    I don't think there's ever a time when losing an animal is going to feel like the right choice, loss never feels right. It's so very hard. I feel for your friend. Please let us know how they are doing.


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