Quality of Life, Quality of Death


This is the subject that no pet-lover wants to think about, but those of us who share our lives with pets have either been there already or know deep in our hearts that the day is coming. One day, our beloved pet will be near death, whether from old age, illness or serious injury. Someone, perhaps the vet, a friend or a relative will ask, Do you want to euthanise your dog? Have you considered putting your cat to sleep now? These questions can be incapacitating. So often we read posts on the PetFinder.my forum which end with a plaintive query, “Please help me! I don’t know what to do. What is the right thing? When is the right time?”

Some people oppose euthanasia on the grounds that killing is never justifiable, even when it is done with merciful intent. They say that we should instead do whatever is necessary to keep the animal as comfortable as possible until it dies naturally, in its own time. Personally, while I respect those who take this stance, I do not share it. My own opinion is that euthanasia can certainly be abused (in cases where a healthy animal is put down for frivolous reasons), but I also feel that it’s acceptable to spare an animal ghastly suffering in circumstances where the owner simply cannot ease its suffering. I have elected to euthanise pets in the past, and while it’s always been an agonising decision, I believe it was the compassionate one. The point of this article, however, is not to advocate or oppose euthanasia, but rather to bring up some considerations when faced with those big questions: Is euthanasia the best thing for my terminally ill pet? And if so, when?

Dr. Alice Villalobos is a veterinarian who specialises in oncology and end-of-life care. She devised a rating system (http://www.pawspice.com/qualityoflifescale.html ) to help owners evaluate their pets’ quality of life objectively. She urges us to systematically assess the animal’s state in each of seven categories: Hurt, hunger, hydration, hygiene, happiness, mobility, and more good days than bad. She includes a secondary table focusing specifically on the assessment of cats.

She also provides many helpful hints on keeping the animal comfortable during its last weeks and days: switch to wet foods, or finally to anything the animal appears willing to eat. Administer subcutaneous fluids to keep the pet hydrated. Give whatever pain medication is required to limit the animal’s suffering. Try amusing the cat with some catnip, or move the dog’s bed into the family area so he is not alone. Finally, use Dr. Villalobos’ chart to help you decide when or if the time is right to end your pet’s suffering. As she says at the end of both charts: “If death comes peacefully and painlessly at home, that is ok.”

Whether an animal can die peacefully and painlessly at home has partly to do with the nature of its ailments, but we can’t overlook the human factors that come into play, as well. They are no less real, and we have to appraise our own resources as realistically as we assess the pet’s condition.

There are people who will make staggering sacrifices of time and money to provide end-of-life care for a beloved pet. I know people who have gone very deeply into debt to pay vet bills. I met a woman who took three months’ leave from work to tend her dying dog. No question, these are heroic decisions, but the simple truth is that not everyone can make these choices. If you are dealing with a paralysed pet, you cannot leave it untended throughout a work-day, or you’ll soon be dealing with a paralysed pet with bed sores and urine burns. It’s all very well to say that you’d spend any amount of money to help your pet, but vet bills and medication costs can add up quickly. Are you willing to mortgage your home, to dip into your children’s education funds, to take money from the family’s food budget? Take a clear look at your circumstances. How much time and money can you realistically dedicate to keeping your pet comfortable — not just alive, but comfortable — during its final stages? The answers to these questions must be factored into your decision-making.

Finally, I believe we all need to look in the mirror at our own ability to cope with the pet’s impending death. Literally — look into the mirror! Do you see a distraught, frightened, and already grief-stricken face looking back at you? That is the face that your pet sees. Some people have a marvellous ability to focus on the positive, vowing to make the most of the pet’s last days. “I’ll take the dog to all his favourite places,” or “I’m cooking all of the cat’s favourite foods.” I admire these folks more than I can say. I’m ashamed to admit this, but when I saw my dog declining rapidly from kidney failure, I could only sit down with her and cry, and she probably thought, “What? I feel miserable enough, and now I have to worry about you, too?” Unable to feign a positive attitude, I’m certain that I was just compounding my dog’s suffering. Evaluating your own emotional resources as a care-giver is every bit as important as measuring your time and financial resources.

I know people who chose to euthanise a pet and later regretted it. I know others who rejected euthanasia and later rued that decision. So often, we’re caught in an emotionally fraught time, and it’s difficult to think clearly. Maybe the ideal time to read Dr. Villalobos’ article and consider our own resources is when our pets are in their prime. Although the thought of losing them is unbearable, we need to prepare ourselves — death is inevitable, no matter which path we choose. Providing for a peaceful, painless end is the goal we need to keep in sight.




Amanda Coffin

Amanda is a long-time resident of Kuala Lumpur. She lives with two cats and is PetFinder.my's Forum Moderator. She also owns her own freelance writing and editing company, Stylus Inc.

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