Pets age faster than people. Cats and small breed dogs generally are considered senior around 7 years of age, while large dogs typically reach this designation at around 5 to 6 years of age. As your pet ages and their health declines, you may have difficulty determining whether they are enjoying life. Our MetroPet Veterinary Clinic team wants to help by providing information about how to properly assess your senior pet’s quality of life (QOL).

Conditions that can affect your pet’s quality of life

Senior pets are at higher risk for several health complications that can affect their QOL. These conditions include:

  • Cancer — Cancer is the leading cause of death in senior dogs, and senior cats are also susceptible. Common dog cancers include hemangiosarcoma, lymphoma, and osteosarcoma. Common cat cancers include leukemia, squamous cell carcinoma, and fibrosarcoma.
  • Arthritis — Senior pets frequently are affected by arthritis, which can cause significant joint pain and decreased mobility. 
  • Heart conditions — Up to 75% of senior dogs experience heart disease. Conditions include dilated cardiomyopathy and mitral valve disease. Senior cats are most commonly affected by cardiomyopathies. Heart conditions can affect your pet’s QOL by causing problems such as difficulty breathing, lethargy, decreased appetite, and collapse.
  • Kidney disease — Kidney disease is a common problem affecting senior pets, especially cats. About 30% of cats over the age of 10 have chronic kidney disease. Kidney disease can affect your pet’s QOL by causing problems such as lethargy, decreased appetite, nausea, and vomiting.

Pet quality of life scale

A veterinary oncologist developed a QOL scale to help pet caregivers determine whether continuing end-of-life care is acceptable for their pet. Seven factors are evaluated and scored on a scale from 0 to 10, where 10 indicates ideal circumstances. The scores for each factor are totaled, and a score over 35 points represents acceptable life quality to continue care. Scores lower than this indicate that plans concerning humane euthanasia should be pursued to prevent suffering. 

Factors evaluated are:

  • Hurt — One of the top concerns for senior pets is the ability to manage their pain. This includes the ability to breathe without difficulty. You should consider whether your pet’s pain can be managed well with pain medications and whether oxygen supplementation can help them breathe more easily. 
  • Hunger — Sick pets frequently lose their appetite, and finding ways to ensure they receive adequate nutrition is important. You should consider whether your pet can eat enough to maintain their weight, and if not, whether you are comfortable maintaining a feeding tube. 
  • Hydration — Adequate hydration is crucial to keep your pet healthy. If your pet isn’t able to drink enough, you need to consider whether you are able to administer subcutaneous fluids to keep them hydrated.
  • Hygiene — If your pet isn’t able to adequately groom themselves, you should consider whether you are able to keep their skin and coat clean and dry to prevent bedsores and infection.
  • Happiness — Monitoring your pet’s behavior and interactions with other pets and people can help you determine if they are experiencing joy in life. You should consider whether your pet still expresses excitement in response to family members and favorite toys, and how frequently they socialize and seek attention. 
  • Mobility — Mobility issues can cause significant complications for pets and their owners. You should consider whether you are able to assist your pet if they are immobile. They will need help going to the bathroom, and their position should be shifted about every four hours to help prevent bedsores. 
  • More good days than bad — Assess your pet’s QOL daily, and when they start having more bad days than good, discuss their condition with our veterinary professionals to determine the best plan for your pet.

Steps to keep your senior pet comfortable

As your pet reaches senior status, you can take steps to keep them as happy and comfortable as possible. These include:

  • Providing regular wellness checks — Since senior pets are at higher risk for health conditions, they should be evaluated by a veterinary professional at least every six months. These visits help detect health complications in the early stages when they are easier to manage.
  • Maintaining your pet’s weight — Overweight pets are at higher risk for health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, and arthritis. The extra weight also causes breathing and mobility issues. Feed your pet appropriately and ensure they receive regular exercise to keep them at a healthy weight.
  • Keeping their environment stable — Senior pets affected by conditions that impair their vision or cause cognitive dysfunction can get upset and confused if their environment is changed. In other words, don’t rearrange your furniture if you want to ensure your pet knows how to navigate through your home.
  • Installing ramps — For pets who have mobility issues, providing ramps can help them access favored resting surfaces. 
  • Providing bedding — Senior pets need thick, comfortable places to rest to help alleviate stress on their joints.
  • Making bowls accessible — Ensure your pet has access to their food and water bowls, and consider elevating the bowls if your pet has neck or back pain. 
  • Making the litter box accessible — If your senior cat has arthritis, they may have difficulty going in and out of their litter box. Provide a box that has at least one low side so they don’t find a more convenient place to use the bathroom.

Knowing how to assess your pet’s QOL will help you make an informed decision when the time is right. If you are concerned about your pet’s QOL, contact MetroPet Veterinary Clinic so we can evaluate your pet and offer advice on how to proceed.