ALMOST 800 horse owners completed a survey commissioned by the National Fallen Stock Company (NFSCo) asking about their plans for dealing with the death or euthanasia of their horse and for disposing of its body.

The survey, which ran throughout February and March, also included questions to assess whether owners understood their legal obligations regarding their horses, the food chain and passports. It was split into two parts - the first part was answered by owners who had had previous experience of the death or euthanasia of a horse; the second part was answered by all owners regardless of their experiences.

The NFSCo reports that, overall, 73 per cent of those responding to the survey had previously had to dispose of a horse that had died or been euthanased. Of these, 64 per cent had opted for their animal to be euthanased by injection administered by a veterinary surgeon. The most common reason for selecting a particular method of euthanasia was welfare, with 38 per cent of respondents citing this. Only 6 per cent of respondents said that cost was a factor in their decision, and almost a quarter took the decision on the basis of advice from their vet.

According to the NFSCo, only five of the 576 people who answered a question in the first section of the survey about whether their horse was intended for the food chain said that this was the case. Six of eight people who answered the question 'Were you aware of any restrictions which might have prevented your horse from answering the food chain?' indicated that they were aware of the restrictions.

Regarding disposal, 38 per cent of respondents had their horse's body taken by a collector, 31 per cent had their horse cremated, 15 per cent buried the body and 15 per cent had it taken by the local hunt.

Almost 60 per cent of the owners responding in the first part of the survey did not follow the appropriate legal process of returning the passport of the dead horse to the issuing authority, the NFSCo reports. It says that 53 per cent reported that they kept it after the horse died, 4 per cent destroyed it and 2 per cent gave it to the disposal representative.

Responses to the second part of the survey showed that 84 per cent of owners had a plan for what to do if they needed to have their horse or pony euthanased. 'While it is reassuring that a high number have given the matter some thought, owners should be encouraged to consider their options and plan in advance what they should do, in case they are faced with the situation,' the NFSCo says.

Most respondents (67 per cent) said they would prefer their animal to be euthanased by an injection administered by their veterinary surgeon. More than three-quarters of respondents selected a method with veterinary involvement.

Responses in this part of the survey also suggested that 98 per cent of owners did not intend for their horse to enter the food chain, with only 12 owners saying that they did intend their horse to enter the food chain. Thirteen owners responded to a question about their awareness of restrictions on horses entering the food chain: 10 indicated that they were aware of them.

The NFSCo suggests that the results of the survey indicate that horse owners would welcome more advice on the options open to them when dealing with the death of a horse or pony and the disposal of its body. It adds that the responses suggest that owners 'have little faith in the purpose or effectiveness of the horse passport system' and that, with only 40 per cent of responding owners intending to return their horse's passport to the issuing authority, the deaths of almost 60 per cent of the equine population may be going unrecorded. Comments made by owners responding to the survey suggested that many wanted to keep a passport for sentimental reasons and did not trust the issuing organisation to return the document.

Michael Seals, chairman of the NFSCo, commented: 'No-one likes to think they might have to deal with their horse's death but owners should know what the options are. It is better to make a plan and never use it than be faced with making decisions when you're in an emotional and stressful situation, when you perhaps haven't considered all the options.'

He added: 'The survey also highlights some gaps in knowledge about horse passports and we'll share this information with passport issuing organisations so all of us in the animal health and welfare sector can make sure owners are better informed and improve the efficiency of the system.'

(Source: Veterinary Record 2013;172:516 doi:10.1136/vr.f3142)