Alberta SPCA asking horse owners to evaluate whether older animals can endure winter

The Alberta SPCA is asking owners of senior horses to consider if a horse can make it through the cold months before winter arrives. Older horses struggle to maintain their warmth, especially in January-February weather, and can suffer greatly because of the cold.

Euthanasia may be best option for older horses, says animal welfare organization

Snow covered horses graze a pasture near Cremona, Alta., in this file photo. The Alberta SPCA is asking horse owners consider whether their older animals can endure the bitter winter months — and whether euthanasia might be a necessary option. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Deena was the queen of the ranch, a grey Arabian horse beloved by all who knew her.

But at 31 she was an old gal suffering from cancer and had lost 80 pounds in two months. With a bitter winter approaching, Brenda Fehr decided to put her down in September of 2017.

"One of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make in my life," said Fehr, who has run the Dare to Dream Horse Rescue in Dalemead, Alta., with her husband for more than a decade.

"Rather than watch her suffer, I mean, we had to do what we had to do."

The Alberta Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is asking owners of senior horses to consider that difficult decision as winter approaches. Older horses struggle to maintain their warmth, especially in January-February weather, and can suffer greatly because of the cold.

"If it's a companion animal, a dog or a cat, you're able to take them inside and manage that much easier," spokesperson Dan Kobe said Tuesday. 

"But when it comes to equines, that's not as easy of a task to be able to do."

It is the first time the Alberta SPCA has put out such a public announcement, Kobe said, although the organization was not prompted by any particular event.

But peace officers find older animals in distress every year.

"What we're asking horse owners to consider is, before they get to a situation where their horse is in a panic situation, where it's suffering and it's down, have that thought now," Kobe said, advising horse owners speak to a veterinarian about their options.

In the past, most horses would live until their early 20s, according to Kobe. But modernity has brought with it horses that can live into their late 20s and early 30s. Those older horses struggle to maintain warmth through internal digestion, often beset by poor teeth and the ravages of age.

The most humane thing to do can be to put the animal down peacefully, Kobe said.

"You want your beloved horse — or any animal — to have a good death, you don't want it to suffer when it's at the end of its life."

Making the right choices

"A lot of people don't realize how hard winter can be on their horses," said Kathy Bartley, who runs the Bear Valley Rescue in southern Alberta with her husband. 

Evaluating in consultation with a veterinarian before the cold months is a good idea, she said, because once a horse has grown its winter coat it might be harder to spot some health issues.

"It can hide a lot of poor conditions," Bartley said. She said she often sees old, sick or uncared-for horses at market in February and March, many destined for the slaughterhouse.

"The toll of the month of winter add up."

Fehr said those having trouble supporting their animals, such as with the cost of feed, can always get help elsewhere, including rescues like hers.

"It's no shame on anyone to have to ask for help."

Deena had to be euthanized at age 31 due to health issues. (Brenda Fehr/Dare to Dream Horse Rescue)

In a case like Deena's, however, there was little else that could be done.

"I spoke to my vet at great length about it and we both agreed that she would not make the winter — even with blanketing and everything else she would suffer," Fehr said.

Making these kinds of decisions is a part of responsible ownership, she said.

"We're responsible for their lives, they don't have a choice. And so we need to make sure as horse owners that we make the right choices for them."