Quality of Life & End of Life Conversations
I frequently say about pets, “Their only fault in life is that they don’t live longer…otherwise they are pretty much perfect.” As pets begin to decline due to terminal illness or organ dysfunction from old age, it can be very difficult to know when “it is time.” It’s a conversation that many of us actively try to avoid, as if ignoring it will make the problem go away. I know…I’ve been there, too. But unfortunately ignoring that conversation does not make the reality of our pets’ decline disappear. Addressing these conversations early and as often as needed in states of health decline make an overwhelming process just a little bit more manageable when the time to let them go finally does come.
The most important question during these conversations is, “What is my pet’s quality of life like?” Although we want to preserve the quantity of our pets’ days, we do not want to do this at the expense of the quality of their days. Are they living and enjoying it, or are they just existing? When quality of life starts to slip towards more bad days than good days, it is important to ask, “Is there anything that can be done to shift the balance back towards more good days?” If the answer is “yes,” then we implement those changes to help our pets be more comfortable and happier. If the answer is “no,” then we approach a conversation about what it looks like to consider putting a pet to sleep to prevent their suffering from being prolonged. At this point, the question no longer is, “Can my pet keep going?”, but rather, the question becomes, “Should my pet keep going?” We shift our focus from how long they are living to how well they are living.
If quality of life is so important, how do we as pet owners monitor this at home? There are many ways to monitor quality of life. Below are a few examples of the things we should be evaluating:
~Appetite: when a pet stops eating normally or stops eating altogether, this can be a sign that their quality of life is suffering
~Pain level: if a pet is demonstrating clear signs of pain and discomfort and medications are no longer effective to control this pain, we are concerned about a poor quality of life
~Energy and Excitement: if a pet no longer has the energy or excitement to do the things that used to make them happy, this can be a sign that their quality of life is declining
~Ability to carry out daily functions: if a pet starts to lose the ability to perform basic daily functions, like going to the bathroom, eating and drinking normally, and being able to move around comfortably, we are concerned about poor quality of life.
When pet owners are noticing these signs, I encourage them to start keeping a journal of “good days” and “bad days.” It does not have to be fancy or very in depth! At the end of each day, review that day’s events for your pet and decide if it was an overall good day or an overall bad day, and write that in the journal. You can add any specific details if you would like, as this helps some people track what denotes a good or bad day. At the end of each week, tally the “goods” and the “bads.” If your pet gets to the point where the bad weeks are starting to outweigh the good weeks, please call your veterinarian to discuss your pet’s quality of life. This can be a hard conversation, but our goal is to avoid a prolonged period of suffering for our pets. They spend their whole lives brining us so much joy and love; I think it is a kind and noble act to allow them a peaceful passing when the time is right for them. The time will never be right for us, and it is okay to acknowledge that with tears and mourning. However, we cannot let that grief deter us from honoring our pets by doing what is best for them. We consider it a somber privilege to help you navigate these quality of life and end of life discussions and decisions for your pet.
“If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.” ~James Harriott