Living In the Moment
Pets do think about the future. This is why a dog becomes anxious when he knows that it is time for his daily walk and why a cat will wait patiently for a mouse to emerge from a mouse hole.
However, animals don’t think about the distant future. Pets don’t plan their calendar for the weekend, and they don’t make decisions based on long term benefits—such as a dog that ‘decides’ to go on a diet so that he can run as fast as the other dogs in the neighborhood.
In other words, pets spend most of their time “Living in the Moment.” This outlook becomes incredibly important when a pet is in pain. An animal in pain knows only that it is in pain. It doesn’t wonder how or why it is in pain, and it doesn’t anticipate that the pain will go away tomorrow or next week or next month. While living in the moment can have its advantages, a pet in pain is unable to imagine its life without that pain.
Of course, pet owners do think about the distant future. We are able to weigh the advantages of a surgery that has a short but painful recovery versus the possibility of ongoing and increasing pain. For example, pets with dental disease are often in constant pain. Do we elect to have their infected teeth extracted, causing them temporarily increased discomfort, with the reassurance that they will be more comfortable after the healing process? Of course we do.
These decisions become much more challenging when an animal has a serious health problem that is causing chronic pain. Many owners will ask about “suffering,” but that is a difficult word to define. If you’ve ever had a really bad case of the flu, certainly you were miserable and felt lousy, but were you suffering? In my opinion, an animal can be suffering without pain (perhaps, a cat that can’t run or play because he’s paralyzed) or can be in pain without suffering (a dog with chronic arthritis).
At its core, the discussion about an animal’s pain or suffering boils down to one key phrase: “Quality of Life.” Many owners will comment that their ailing pet is still eating and drinking, so he must still have a quality of life. I remind these owners that we all need to eat, drink and breathe in order to stay alive. If that is all we require from our pets, then we have set the bar very low.
What defines an animal’s quality of life will vary from one animal to the next. This is where the owner needs to make an honest assessment of his animal’s likes and dislikes. If your animal still wants to do the things that he likes, then he still has some quality of life. The dog that always played fetch, but no longer has the desire or energy—is he enjoying life? The cat that no longer waits at the door demanding affection when you come home—is she enjoying life?
In many cases, after a thorough medical work-up, veterinarians are able to restore the quality of life to some ailing pets . . . but not in all cases. If your pet isn’t enjoying life anymore, then you may have to make the difficult, unpleasant, but loving decision to end his pain. Your pet is counting on you to make the right choices on his behalf. Be your pet’s best friend throughout his life—the beginning, middle, and most importantly, the end.