This month we just celebrated my dog’s 2-year anniversary of his front leg amputation due to cancer. Given that the prognosis at that time was 6-8 months, this was very worthy of a party. Brandy is doing well, and has never complained, but recently I have been noticing some signs that made me wonder if he was, if not in pain, at least uncomfortable. Animals, in a predator/prey world, typically mask pain so they are not targeted as easy prey. Subtle things such as panting, pacing, excessive licking, and whining or other vocalizations, can all be signs of discomfort. So we marked his anniversary with a trip to the vet to talk about what we could do to help make him more comfortable.
Why bother treating pain? It’s really a quality of life question. Is it a positive to have a pet live a long life if they are in discomfort or actual pain for years? Chronic pain can affect both the overall health of the animal as well as their behavior. It not only can lower their immune system but often when older animals become snappy it’s actually because they are in pain and lashing out in their discomfort. Then they get euthanized for their “temperament” rather than the real reason which is the owner’s unwillingness (or inability) to treat the underlying health issue. Granted, that might not be a bad thing since euthanasia is a truly a gift we can give our pets when they are suffering.
We get in so many older animals, particularly cats, that are in really horrible shape. Way underweight - almost emaciated, rough looking or sparse coat, teeth in awful condition, etc. And if reclaimed (frequently owners just assume their elderly pet “went off to die” and aren’t even looking for them) they say “he’s old so we stopped taking him to the vet.” Why? Older animals need care even more than younger healthy animals! I get that not everyone has the financial resources to do extensive tests and treatments on their pets and that it can be hard to justify spending hundreds of dollars on an animal that might die soon but to just let your animal suffer (and yes, if your animal is wasting away there is an underlying health issue and your pet is suffering!) is inhumane. You cannot be forced to treat your animal’s illness but to ignore it is neglect and you can be held responsible for that. If you are not willing to at least do the minimum to keep the animal comfortable (perhaps a steroid injection, some pain meds or supplements, medicated baths or whatever your veterinarian recommends) then you need to make the humane decision to end his suffering.
I often want to tell these people that I hope someone makes the same decision for them when they are old and achy and sick so they know what they put their animal through. Is arthritis life-threatening? No, but again it’s a “quality of life over quantity of days” issue. What’s the point of keeping your pet around just to watch him struggle? My mother often said to me “growing old is not for sissies” because of her health issues. If it were not for the pain medications she was on, she would have had no quality of life at all. This is a very important discussion to have with your veterinarian and well worth the price of a health exam.
Even if you choose not to do more treatment right away the doctor can advise you on signs to look for that will help you know when it is time to make the humane decision. There are risks with pain meds but I believe that Brandy deserves to have every day he lives as pain free as possible even if it reduces his lifespan slightly. Your pets are relying on you for the care they need. Don’t let them down in their old age!
Mickey Zeldes is the supervisor at the Rohnert Park Animal Shelter. She can be contacted at email@example.com.