No pet lover is ever completely ready to say goodbye to their beloved senior pet, but most would agree that watching their companion struggle or suffer through declining health is a fate far worse than humane euthanasia.

Routinely assessing your senior pet’s quality of life can provide honest and unbiased answers to emotionally charged and complex questions, including:

  • Is my senior pet suffering?
  • What defines quality of life for my senior pet?
  • Is it time to say goodbye?

If you are concerned about your senior pet’s wellbeing, assess their quality of life with this guide from Westerville Veterinary Clinic.

Defining and prioritizing your pet’s quality of life

Quality of life has no set definition and its criteria can vary from pet to pet and owner to owner. Begin your senior pet’s assessment by considering what you believe is most important during your pet’s final months, weeks, days, and hours. This may include:

  • Pain — You want your pet to be pain-free until the end.
  • Appetite — You want your pet to still love their food.
  • Mobility — You want your pet to be mobile and independent for as long as possible.
  • Attitude — You want to preserve your pet’s dignity and unique personality. 
  • Reaching a milestone birthday or holiday — You want your pet to reach a special birthday or to join an important celebration.

Drawing a line in the sand for your senior pet’s health

Others may find deciding where to draw the line for their senior pet’s care more helpful. The line is typically drawn when management and treatment are no longer effective, and the pet is rapidly deteriorating. This line will vary, but common examples include:

  • Inappetence — The pet has stopped eating or is not eating enough to survive.
  • Incontinence — The pet can no longer hold their urine or stool.
  • Disorientation — The pet no longer recognizes their owner or appears scared and confused.
  • Unmanageable pain — The pet no longer responds to pain medication or therapy.
  • Disease progression — The pet’s condition has reached a turning point.

Once you have defined your personal parameters, you can look more closely at your senior pet’s physical and mental wellbeing.

Using a pet quality of life scale

As an owner, looking at your senior pet without experiencing deep and complex emotions is almost impossible but, unfortunately, this mix of love and sorrow can cloud your rational judgment and blind you to your pet’s pain and suffering.

Pet quality of life scales are easy-to-use assessment tools that provide an unbiased perspective on your pet’s health status. Westerville Veterinary Clinic recommends that all senior pet owners facing quality of life decisions use the HHHHHMM scale, which asks owners to score their pet from 0 to 10 (i.e., poor to excellent) in seven key areas, including:

  • Hurt — Pain affects your pet’s physical and mental health. Chronic pain can lead to impaired mobility, inappetence, and sensitization (i.e., pain at the slightest touch), as well as depression, anxiety, and fear. Consider all physical distress, including respiratory distress, when scoring this category, as well as your pet’s pain control needs (e.g., medication, therapies, oxygen support).
  • Hunger — Inappetence can be a side effect of your pet’s condition or their medication, and will leave your pet weak and tired. Consider the effort required to get your pet to eat—do they respond to more appetizing food or hand-feeding? Do they require a feeding tube? Are they losing weight and muscle mass?
  • Hydration — Is your pet consuming enough water? Can they reach their water bowl? Do they require daily fluid therapy to prevent dehydration?
  • Hygiene — Can you clean your pet after they urinate or defecate? Are they experiencing skin breakdown because of pressure sores or urine scald? Does your pet groom themselves?
  • Happiness — Senior pet emotional health can be impacted by physical illness, as well as sensory or cognitive decline. Is your pet still engaged in their surroundings (i.e., is there a spark in their eyes?) and able to recognize familiar faces? Do they enjoy social interactions and their favorite toys or treats? Does your pet seem sad and disinterested?
  • Mobility — Reduced mobility can make pets feel vulnerable, frustrated, or depressed. Can your pet get up, walk, and change positions without support? Do they require assistive devices (e.g., sling, body harness, cart) to go outdoors? Can they posture to eliminate? 
  • More good days than bad — Quality of life is typically poor once a pet’s bad days outnumber their good days. Improvement or rebound is unlikely, so we recommend discussing end-of-life care with our veterinarian if your pet’s days are consistently bad.

Scores greater than 35 on the HHHHHMM scale are considered an acceptable quality of life, while veterinary intervention is advised for pets who score 35 or below. Download the complete HHHHHMM scale as a printable PDF here. If your pet’s scores are low in any area, we suggest scheduling an appointment at Westerville Veterinary Clinic.

Discuss your pet’s results with your veterinarian

No one knows your senior pet better than you, so always address any concerns about your pet’s quality of life with your veterinarian. They cannot make this difficult decision for you, but they can provide objective insight and offer palliative care or end-of-life guidance.

The HHHHHMM scale and other quality of life assessments can also benefit healthy senior pets by encouraging owners to monitor, record, and track their pet’s wellbeing, identify changes in their daily care needs, and recognize and address early pain signs.  

Honor your senior pet by ensuring their final life stage is comfortable and dignified. Contact Westerville Veterinary Clinic to learn more about end-of-life care or to schedule a quality of life consultation.