This is the last in a series of posts about the challenges of assessing the quality of life for our dogs, cats, and horses. In Part One I discussed “black and white” decisions (more obvious) versus the “gray” areas (not such a clear choice.) Part Two discussed personal experiences with horses, both black and white and gray. Part Three offered some thoughts on what it is like to be on the veterinary side of the table. It is part of my job to help clients navigate challenging decisions. Additionally, I shared what it is like to be the veterinarian and the owner, knowing more than I wish I knew.
There are multiple aspects to a pet’s quality of life that must be evaluated. These include mobility, nutrition, hydration, mental attitude, elimination, and the ability to do their favorite things.
Last year I had to put down Clooney, my old Pyrenees/Akita mix. Clooney was a rescue dog named by the shelter employees because he was handsome, like George! He was also a big, big dog. I fervently hoped that mobility would not be the limiting factor for him. It seems to me that mobility issues should be the most fixable of the quality of life parameters.
But when a hundred-pound dog can no longer lift his hindquarters to eat, potty or move at all, it is a crisis. Over a period of a week, Clooney went down, in spite of all the musculoskeletal support I was providing. He was at least 11, but because he was a rescue dog, I didn’t know exactly how old he was.
What are some initial indicators of deterioration?
Nutrition and hydration are very critical components to leading a life worth living. Severely dehydrated animals don’t feel good. In the wild, animals don’t get to that condition, as nature provides another way out.
Kidneys fail in our older pets just as they do in people. Kidney failure is one of the kindest exits provided by Mother Nature, as it isn’t painful per se. My boyfriend’s mom is currently on hospice with failing kidneys among her diagnoses. She’s eating well and she’s alert and her quality of life right now is good. When our pets have one or more organ systems failing, sometimes the last act of love we can provide is to give them a pain-free departure.
A pet that can no longer control bowels or bladder is often confused or ashamed of their incontinence. A dog that can’t get up to urinate lives with the constant sensation of a full (or overflowing) bladder. This issue often manifests as a “leaking” problem. The pressure in the bladder overrides the urethral sphincter and results in wet bedding and a chagrined pup.
In Part Three of this series, I showed a video of my beloved Border collie Reilly struggling to control her back legs while she defecated. In her case, the problem was neurological.
Hospice care for pets
Hospice care and support is an option for companion animals. There is an organization dedicated to helping owners find resources and options. The International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IAAHPC) has a mission statement that says, “The IAAHPC promotes comfort care that addresses the physical, psychological, and social needs of animals with chronic and/or life-limiting diseases. We promote physical, emotional, and spiritual support for caregivers. We also educate professionals and advance research in the field of animal hospice and palliative care.”
Certainly, hospice for humans is a wonderfully supportive and caring end of life option. Our animals deserve the same considerations, with the caveat that veterinary medicine offers solutions not readily available in human medicine.
If you are facing tough decisions with a beloved family member, talk to your veterinarian. Here is an article that might help you formulate your questions. As I stated previously, I believe helping our pets cross the Rainbow Bridge is the last act of love we can provide to our furry family members. If only our pets lived longer lives… it is so painful to lose them.