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Quality of Life

Defining "Quality of Life" - by Moria Anderson Allen, M.Ed.


Whenever one considers the painful choice of euthanasia, one is always advised to take the pet's "quality of life" into account. How can you determine whether a pet is still experiencing a good quality of life -- or whether its level of suffering is no longer acceptable? That decision is individual to every pet, and every owner. Following, however, are some factors to consider when attempting to assess a pet's quality of life:


Mobility

An older pet often loses mobility. A dog may no longer be able to climb stairs or hop into a car; a cat may lose the ability to jump onto a bed or chair. At this stage, however, your pet may still be healthy and happy, and you can easily make accommodations for its reduced ability.

If, however, your pet can barely move, that's another matter. Can your pet get to its feet without assistance? Can it sit or lie down without collapsing? Can it walk? Can it handle basic functions, such as squatting on a litterbox? Does it whimper or growl if you attempt to move it? I've seen dogs so crippled with hip dysplasia that they literally had to drag their immobilized hindquarters across the floor; this hardly represents the "quality of life" I want for my pets.


Appetite/Eating Ability

Is your pet able to eat? Can it consume enough food (or digest that food) to remain properly nourished? Does it regurgitate immediately after eating? Is it unable to chew, or does it have difficulty swallowing? Does it enjoy eating, or do you have to coax every bite past its lips? A pet that is unable to eat or gain sufficient nourishment from its food is on a slow road to starvation.


Breathing

A number of illnesses, including cancer, can affect the lungs. When a condition causes the lungs to fill with fluid or foreign matter (such as cancer cells), a pet quickly loses its ability to breathe easily or comfortably. You'll notice that your pet may seem to be panting, or that it is laboring to breathe; often, you'll see its stomach or flanks "pumping" as it can no longer breathe with just the chest muscles. It may also experience wheezing attacks. If such symptoms occur, ask for a chest x-ray to determine the condition of the lungs. If the problem is due to an allergy, infection, or asthma, medication may help. Medications are also available that can help if the problem is due to a heart condition and even in the early stages of various kinds of cancer. If treatment has been tried and/or is no longer effective, however, little can be done.


Discomfort

It can be difficult to determine whether a pet is in pain, as animals instinctively mask discomfort as much as possible. You can pick up clues, however, by watching its posture and expression. Does your pet's face appear furrowed or "worried", rather than relaxed and happy? Does it sit hunched or "hunkered" and tense, rather than relaxing and lying down? Lack of mobility can also be a sign of pain.

Another indication of pain is "denning." An animal in pain will seek a safe place where it won't be disturbed by other animals. If your pet has forsaken its usual territories or sleeping places for the back of the closet or a spot under the bed, this may be a sign that it is pain or distress and feels vulnerable.

A more obvious indication of pain is a pet's reaction to touch. If your pet responds to touch by flinching away, hissing, snarling, or even snapping, this is a clear indication of pain. Sometimes this can indicate a localized pain; if the pet doesn't want to be touched at all, however, it may indicate a broader discomfort.


Incontinence

Many pet owners feel terribly guilty over the natural annoyance they feel when a pet becomes incontinent. They feel they should be more loving, more patient. Incontinence, however, can also be stressful for the pet. As a basic survival mechanism, animals learn not to "mess where they sleep" (for the smell would draw attention to the location of one's den). When an animal can no longer control when or where it urinates or defecates, you can be sure it is not happy with the situation.


Mental Capacity

Older pets occasionally develop signs of diminished mental capacity. They may seem to "forget" things, such as where a toy is located or what a command means. Such a pet may become confused by its surroundings, and this confusion can develop into fear. (In some cases, this "confusion" may be the result of hearing or vision loss, to which both you and your pet can often adapt.)


Happiness

Determining whether your pet is "enjoying" life is certainly a subjective decision. However, if you have been a keen observer of your pet's behavior and attitude during its lifetime, you are likely to be able to determine when it no longer seems "happy." You'll know when it no longer seems to take any pleasure from its food, its toys, its surroundings -- and most of all, from contact with you and the rest of its family. Most pets are tremendously easy to please; when it no longer becomes possible to raise a purr or a tail-wag, you can be fairly certain that your pet is receiving little joy from life.


Response to Treatment

As I said in the beginning of this article, one's first reaction to a pet's illness is to seek whatever treatments that might be available, even those that have only a slim chance of success. This may mean tests, medications, even surgery. But drugs have side effects, repeated trips to the vet cause emotional distress, and more invasive treatments take a physical toll. Eventually, we may conclude that our efforts to treat a pet's illness are more stressful to the pet than the condition itself -- and that our efforts to save a pet's life are actually diminishing, rather than enhancing, the quality of that life.