What is quality of life for a pet?

Quality of life for a pet is a very subjective topic. For some people, a working animal who is no longer able to do the job they have been trained for does not have an acceptable quality of life. For another as long as the animal is eating and drinking then that is sufficient.

I can’t tell you what is right or wrong. All I can do is tell you my thoughts, which I hope help you judge for yourself.

When Gillie first developed arthritis, I said from the beginning, if he was unable to have two 20 minute off lead walks a day then that was not an acceptable quality of life. The reality was we reached that stage pretty quickly but it was clear to me that he was still loving life, even if his exercise had to be reduced. As the disease progressed, I kept moving the goalposts and each time one was reached it would be moved again.

If I was to give anyone any advice, it would be to look at the animal as a whole. There are some functions that are essential to life – breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping and passing urine and faeces. The ability to perform these does not necessarily mean that quality of life is good.

Think about the other things your pet does that they do out of choice – for Gillie it was rolling on the rug, playing with his toys and demanding we fill up his Likky bowl by dropping it at our feet! Does your pet still enjoy doing these things that make them who they are? If they no longer have the interest or ability to enjoy these things, and you are unable to find an alternative do you think they are happy or not? Long walks may be replaced with scentwork games or eventing may be reduced to gentle hacks.

Keep a good day / bad day diary. The odd bad day doesn’t mean the time has come – a number of bad days in succession suggests you need to be looking at whether you need to review treatment with your vet or perhaps you need to be considering whether quality of life is being compromised.

Every animal is an individual – some may be entirely happy simply snoozing on the sofa with the odd meal and toilet break or being a lawnmower in a field. Others may find this boring or frustrating. You know your pet better than anyone else. Be honest with yourself and whatever answer you come up with, trust yourself as they trust you.

I will say try not to get hung up on the specifics. Gillie had a limp for most of the last two years of his life despite all the medication and therapies he was having – I had a habit of focussing on this alone rather than looking at him as a whole and the joy he was getting from other areas of his life. It isn’t always going to be possible to completely eliminate symptoms and managing them to the point that the animal is able to continue enjoying life is ok. Using a quality of life tool such as the one on this site can be a good way of objectively assessing how things are.

If an animal starts to refuse food or drink, collapses, is unable to comfortably defecate or urinate, has a visible, severe injury or shows distress in their breathing without an obvious and reversible cause, to me these are red flags that you need to be having an urgent and serious conversation with yourself and your veterinary surgeon.