Time and again we are advised to take our dog's quality of life into consideration. But what is quality of life? How can you determine whether your dog is still experiencing a good quality of life? How can you determine if his suffering is no longer acceptable? I want to share some facts to consider when assessing your dog's quality of life.
1. An older dog often loses mobility. He might no longer be able to climb stairs or hop into a car. At this stage, however, your dog might still be healthy and happy and you can easily make accommodations for him and manage his mobility with medication.
If, however, your dog can barely move, that's another story. Can your dog get to his feet without assistance? Can he sit or lie down without collapsing? Can he walk? Can he handle basic functions, such as squatting to urinate or defecate? Does he whimper or growl if you attempt to move him? 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 dogs.
2. Is your dog eating? Can he consume enough food to remain properly nourished? Does he regurgitate after eating? Is he unable to chew or does he have difficulty swallowing? Does he enjoy eating, or do you have to coax every bite down? A dog that is unable to eat or gain sufficient nourishment is on a slow road to starvation.
3. A number of illnesses, including cancer, can affect the lungs. It causes the lungs to fill with fluid and a dog quickly loses his ability to breathe comfortably. You'll notice that your dog might seem to be panting or that he is laboring to breathe. Ask your vet for a chest x-ray to determine what’s going on.
4. It can be difficult to discern whether a dog is in pain, as animals instinctively mask their discomfort. You can pick up clues by watching. Does your dog's face appear sad or worried rather than relaxed and happy?
Another indication of pain is "denning." An animal in pain will seek a safe place where it won't be disturbed. If your dog has forsaken his usual territories and is now in the back of the closet or under the bed, this might be a sign that he’s in pain. If he responds to touch by snarling or even snapping, this is a clear indication.
5. As a basic survival mechanism, dogs learn not to defecate or urinate where they sleep, as the smell would draw attention to their location. When a dog can no longer control his bodily functions, you can be sure that he’s not happy with the situation and might even feel stressed.
Determining whether your dog is enjoying life is certainly a subjective decision. If you have been a keen observer of his behavior and attitude during his lifetime, you’ll determine when he no longer seems happy. You'll know when he no longer takes pleasure from food, playtime, and most of all, from you and the family.
When a dog becomes ill, we provide whatever treatment our vet recommends. Repeated trips to the vet might cause distress and more invasive treatments can take a physical and financial toll. Maybe the effort to treat the illness is more stressful to him, and that effort to save his life is diminishing it, rather than enhancing it.
Assessing a dog's quality of life is ongoing. Pain medication might relieve a dog's discomfort and improve his mobility. A change in diet might improve his appetite or provide better nutrition. You are willing to clean up after him and carry him wherever he needs to go for as long as necessary. Eventually, these measures will cease being effective.
It’s tempting to postpone a decision by deciding to let nature take its course. Before choosing that course of action, it's important to understand that, as a dog owner, you’ve been thwarting the course of nature from the start. By ensuring that your dog has food, shelter and is protected from predators, you’ve already guaranteed that nature will not take its course. By providing medical treatment, you have prolonged the life of your dog far beyond what it could have expected if left to nature. In nature, an animal that becomes too ill to obtain food or protect himself will perish quickly and probably not comfortably.
Nature doesn’t offer an easy death even if you choose to let it take its course in the comfort of your home. A dog that can’t breathe easily, eat properly, control bodily functions, and that can barely move or enjoy human contact, is hardly dying comfortably. This is really what quality of life is all about. By assuming nature's role throughout the life of your dog, you must accept its role in determining the death of your dog. In some cases, the quality of life you're really trying to preserve is your own. You’re allowing him to suffer out of a selfish desire to avoid the anguish you will endure when he dies. Ultimately, the most unselfish act of love you can offer him is to end his suffering and choose to accept your own.
Leslie Gallagher of St. Charles owns K9Z Etc., a pet care and dog training business.