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How to Determine a Dog's Quality of Life

Adrienne is a dog trainer and former veterinary assistant. She has taken several specialized courses on hospice care for dogs.

It can be difficult to know when your dog is ready to pass on.

It can be difficult to know when your dog is ready to pass on.

A Dog's Quality of Life

Owners who are questioning when their dog should be put down will often hear veterinarians discuss "quality of life." But what does that really mean?

Quality of life is about basic standards of health, comfort, and happiness. When determining a dog's quality of life, many things are taken into consideration, including how much pain or discomfort the dog is experiencing. Together, owners and veterinarians can assess how the dog's quality of life can be increased with medicine, medical intervention, and tender, loving care.

Euthanasia

When the dog's quality of life is poor, euthanasia is sometimes considered. Euthanasia comes from the Greek word meaning ''good death." A good death is something to aim for when a dog's life becomes too distressed. This humane and peaceful procedure is the best option in some scenarios.

While a veterinarian may offer opinions about when a dog should be euthanized, it ultimately falls to the owner to make this decision. Owners know their dogs best, so only they can gauge their pet's quality of life. Veterinarians and veterinarian staff may direct people towards options, but in the end, it is the dog owner's decision. It is one of the most difficult decisions a dog owner has to face.

Everything You Need to Know About Euthanasia

The most common feelings affecting dog owners considering euthanasia are fear, insecurity, and guilt.

  • Fear comes into play because it is normal to fear the loss of loved ones. Indeed, the death of a dog is one of the most distressing situations an owner may face.
  • Insecurity takes place because dogs, having been spared the capacity of talking, must rely on their owners to interpret their signs of distress, and sometimes these signs are not easy to read. There is always the fear of misinterpreting the signs or making a bad decision.
  • Guilt plays a part. Perhaps because in the corner of the mind of every dog owner, there is always space for hope that the dog will miraculously get better.

A List of Questions to Ask First

To help pet owners facing this difficult decision, many veterinarians have developed questionnaires to help owners rationally assess their dog's individual quality of life. These questions can help dog owners see the larger picture of their pet's situation to make decisions or at least open up a discussion with their vet to see if more can be done.

How to assess your dog's quality of life.

How to assess your dog's quality of life.

How to Assess Your Dog's Quality of Life

These are the questions to ask yourself and to discuss with the vet in order to determine your pet's overall quality of life.

1. How Much Pain Is Your Dog In?

Is your dog in obvious pain? Has he been benefiting from pain relievers? Does she have trouble breathing? Pain is one of the main considerations when assessing the quality of life of an animal. While there are many effective pain relievers, they may not be sufficient or the side effects may outweigh the benefits.

2. Does He/She Still Have an Appetite?

Eating is essential for life. Dogs that have lost their appetite need to receive nutrition. How well is your dog eating? Does he need to be force-fed? Can he eat on his own? There are some medications that may increase appetite such as steroids and some foods made for dogs that need extra nutrition (Hill's A/D, Nutrical). In severe cases, a stomach tube may be inserted.

3. Is He/She Drinking Water?

A dog needs water more than food, so not only is adequate hydration crucial, but dehydration is also a sign that something is wrong. Is your dog drinking enough? If you pull up the skin on the dog's shoulders, does it spring back quickly or does it take time (or worse—remain lifted)? Fluids injected under the skin may help as a way to supplement water. Some dog owners may learn how to give fluids at home.

4. Can Your Dog Still Take Care of Its Basic Functions?

Is your dog's coat dull, smelly, or matted? Is your dog's mobility affected so much that he lies in his waste after elimination? Can he control his bladder and bowel functions? A lack of hygiene is often seen in sick and debilitated pets and can significantly affect their quality of life.

5. Is Your Dog Still Getting Joy Out of Life?

How happy is your dog? Does he still walk? Does she still enjoy time with you? Is he still interacting with your family? Look for signs of joy and pleasure. Dogs that appear depressed, lonely, anxious, or fearful may be in pain or may have started to give up on life.

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6. Can Your Dog Still Sit, Stand, Walk?

In nature, dogs that have lost their mobility will die. Dogs rely on their legs a lot. Unlike humans, they cannot use a wheelchair or a cane, although a sling, harness, or cart may be helpful in some circumstances. Questions to ask are: ''How much can my dog get around? Is her mobility affected by seizures or other nervous system disorders? Can she get up to relieve herself? Dogs that have painful joints may be helped out with medications.

7. How Aware and Alert Is Your Pet?

One of the things veterinarians look at when they assess a pet's level of health is how alert the animal is to its surroundings. Indeed, a dog that is withdrawn and lethargic is not feeling well. Signs of energy and alertness can be seen is a dog's response to noises, lifting up the head, ear movements, tail wags, etc.

8. What Is the Ratio of Pain to Pleasure?

Is your dog having more good days than bad? This is one of the most important considerations to keep in mind. Of course, a bad day is characterized by suffering: lethargy, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, or simply pain. Good days are when your dog responds to you, is alert and active, and demonstrates a general willingness to enjoy life. Marking on a calendar how your dog feels each day may be helpful to see the overall pattern.

This is just one example of a typical questionnaire. Below, you'll find other ways to assess your dog's quality of life.

What if my dog can't sit, stand, or walk?

What if my dog can't sit, stand, or walk?

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some commons questions about a dog's quality of life.

1. What if My Dog Can’t Stand Up?

If your dog can no longer get up, you'll need to assess the situation carefully. Is this a temporary or permanent condition? Are there any devices or medications that might help? Does the dog just need a little help getting up, and can you consistently provide that help? Finding answers for these questions with your vet will help you determine the full scope of the issue.

2. What if My Dog Can’t Walk Anymore?

Slings, harnesses, or carts may be helpful in some circumstances, but an utter loss of mobility can be a huge obstacle, one that thoroughly affects a dog's quality of life. Still it is up to you, the pet owner, to determine how severe this problem is and how much it affects the dog's happiness in life.

3.What if My Dog Is Incontinent?

Although incontinence is a common sign that a dog is ready to die, it might also be a symptom of a number of other issues. Talk to your vet.

4. When Is It Time to Put a Blind and Deaf Dog Down?

At the end of life, complications can multiply and issues can grow. When deciding when it's time to say goodbye to a beloved dog, it might be helpful to take account of the things your pet still takes pleasure in doing. If your dog is blind and deaf but still enjoying food, company, and naps in the sun, then perhaps his quality of life has not yet declined past the point of no return.

5. When to Euthanize an Old Dog?

It's so hard to know when to say goodbye to an old dog. Some age-induced complications are temporary, but some are permanent and will only get worse. It's up to you to respond if your dog is in chronic pain that can't be helped with medication or if they can no longer walk or eat by themselves. Use the questionnaire above to help you decide, and talk to your vet.

Other Ways to Know if Your Dog Is Ready to Die

  • One of the first most interesting and thorough quality of life scales is the “HHHHHMM” Quality of Life Scale, which was crafted by veterinarian Dr. Villalobos to help dog owners and veterinarians come to a decision, or at least have a discussion. HHHHHMM stands for Hurt, Hunger, Hydration, Hygiene, Mobility, and 'More Good Days Than Bad.'
  • Lap of Love offers a free quality of life chart that can be printed and filled out.
  • Another interesting method for determining quality of life entails having two jars, one labeled "bad days" and the other labeled "good days." Dog owners can put a penny in the appropriate jar each day. If the jar of bad days fills much faster than the good, it may be time for a talk with the vet to discuss quality of life.
  • Owners may also simply mark their calendars using a smile for good days and a frown for bad days. Keeping a journal may be helpful considering that dog owners can look back and see how many changes have taken place and how they are affecting the dog.

There are not many things in life as certain as death. Our beloved dog's time will come, as much as we want to postpone death and keep our loyal friend with us, eventually that dreaded time will come. With quality of life in mind, most owners can make the best decision for their dogs.

For Further Reading

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: Koda, our thirteen-year-old Bernese cross, has been struggling to stand and has pooped while lying down because he cannot get up. He can no longer enjoy walks unless it is only four or five houses down the street. He also splays about and needs to be lifted to stand. He is on high dose prednisone and tramadol for pain. He lost his brother three months ago. Some days he seems happy and will lick us and be interactive, but other days he sleeps all day and doesn't even lift his head when we come in. Is it time to put him down?