Results of a ground-breaking study into end of life care of equines shows that over 70% of owners have no plan in place. The three-year study into donkey and horse owner attitudes to equine end of life was coordinated by Advancing Equine Scientific Excellence (AESE) and supported by The Donkey Sanctuary and World Horse Welfare.

The research, which is the first of its kind in the UK, collected data from more than 2,500 participants using a combination of in-depth interviews, focus groups and an online survey. The research set out to understand how owners feel about making equine end-of-life decisions and to determine what additional information and support is required to help owners at this time.

The study found that only one in eight equids dies suddenly, which means that most owners will be faced with making an end-of-life decision at some stage; however, less than a third of those who had not previously lost an equine had any sort of plan in place.

Participants who had experienced equine end of life were asked what advice they would give to other owners and the majority stressed the importance of having a plan in place: one said: “Make a timely decision, at the right time. Make up your mind beforehand – be prepared, have a plan and get all your contacts ready.”

Furthermore, the research also found that end-of-life decisions are not just for older animals, with the number of equids who die aged 7-10 years being similar to those aged 26-30 years. Another participant said: “The donkey I had to have put to sleep before was young; only a year old.”

The key influence in owners’ end-of-life decisions was their own assessment of quality of life, but many felt they needed more support in doing so, with around half of owners wanting more information on this. As a result The Donkey Sanctuary is developing a quality-of-life tool that will provide support for owners in assessing their donkeys.

Dr Faith Burden, director of research and operational support at The Donkey Sanctuary, said: “This has been an enlightening project, and we are grateful to have been involved. End of life is such an emotional time for owners, however having a plan in place can alleviate some of the stress surrounding saying goodbye to a beloved companion. Taking the time to plan ahead really is in the best interests of the donkey.”

Sam Chubbock, head of UK support at World Horse Welfare, said: “End of life is understandably a very difficult subject for horse owners and as a result it can be tempting to avoid thinking about it until you are faced with the decision. However, it is critical that all owners take time to give this some thought while their horse is still fit and well rather than waiting until they are facing a devastating situation. I would personally like to thank each and every owner who took time to respond to such an emotional study – it is clear from so many of the comments how difficult it was for them to say goodbye to their companions so I am enormously grateful to them for sharing their experience with us.”