How to Know When Your Pet’s Quality of Life Is Going Downhill

Learn some ways to determine quality of life and when you need to have a conversation with your veterinarian.

Quality of life includes things like pain level, appetite, happiness and mobility. By:
Quality of life includes things like pain level, appetite, happiness and mobility. By: AlexPears

Pets don’t need designer shoes, a luxurious vacation or a 6-figure income.

Their basic needs include being able to: 

  • Breathe
  • Walk
  • Eat
  • Drink
  • Defecate
  • Urinate
  • Groom
  • Sleep

All those things should be as pain-free as possible. In addition, we love seeing our dogs wag their tails and hearing our cats purr.

I’d be the first to admit that the above list can be argued with. We could add that a pet should be spared from boredom, violence, fear and loneliness. But I believe it’s a good starting point when you consider medical conditions.

Discuss the Tough Questions With Your Vet

If any of these basic bodily functions doesn’t occur, or if it occurs with discomfort or pain, then your pet has a decreased quality of life.

What do we do then?

The first step should be having a heart-to-heart discussion with your veterinarian. It may not be easy, but it’s critical. You and your vet will need to answer tough questions such as:

  • What is my pet’s diagnosis?
  • Why is my pet in pain?
  • How can we decrease the pain?
  • Can medications help?
  • Can surgery help?

For example, if your dog has a limp, then pain medications, joint supplements, weight loss or a “joint diet” may help. If your cat has a tumor, then surgery can help remove it. If your pet has a metabolic disease, then medications may be able to solve the problem. The list goes on…

In this video, Dr. Mary K. Klein, DVM, DACVIM, DACVR, discusses quality of life, definitive care and palliative care for pets:

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How to Tell If Things Are Getting Worse

How can you tell if your pet’s quality of life is decreasing? Isn’t that subjective? Doesn’t it depend on your personal beliefs? How can you be objective given the tight bond you have with your pet?

One fairly objective and simple way is to use a scale from 1 to 10. A rating of 1 means the poorest quality of life, and 10 is the best possible quality of life.

If you rate your pet as a 9 in January, a 7 in March and a 5 in May, it’s time to face reality. Your pet’s quality of life has significantly deteriorated over a short period of time. You need to have an honest discussion with your family and your veterinarian about what can realistically be done.

For a more comprehensive tool, consider the HHHHHMM Quality of Life scale. You may want to consider printing multiple copies of the document. Then fill in a new copy regularly, monthly, weekly or even daily depending on the situation. This will help you see a trend more objectively: Is your pet’s status the same, better or worse than the last time you assessed the situation?

The scale uses several simple criteria such as pain level, appetite, hygiene, happiness and mobility to try to remain as objective as possible.

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When Euthanasia Becomes an Option

The next challenge is to remember that age is not a disease. If neither pain management nor medical and surgical treatments can help, then maybe it is time to consider euthanasia.

As emotionally and ethically difficult as it is for you, your whole family and the veterinarian and his/her staff, euthanasia is sometimes the only reasonable and humane solution. It may be the only way your pet finds relief.

For a pet, quality of life includes the right to end suffering with dignity when all reasonable options have been exhausted.

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This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ. It was last reviewed March 13, 2015.

Dr. Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ

View posts by Dr. Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ
Dr. Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, is a traveling, board-certified veterinary surgeon in the Allentown, Pennsylvania area. He is a certified veterinary journalist, an award-winning author and a prolific speaker. He co-wrote Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound, about weight loss in dogs and humans. He also writes a free weekly newsletter, available at DrPhilZeltzman.com.

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