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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:



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



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



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



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



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