Quality of Life Issues: Cancer Treatment in the Companion Animal

Author: Christina Bach, MBE, LCSW, OSW-C
Last Reviewed: August 11, 2022

What is quality of life?

The goal of cancer treatment in the veterinary patient is to prolong good quality of life for as long as possible. The quantity of life is meaningless without quality. Because quality issues are vague and changeable, it is easy to focus instead on quantity because that is a specific, well-defined goal. It is important to keep these two factors in balance. Quality of life can be defined as "what makes life worth living."

Objective vs. Subjective

Your veterinarian should provide perspective and be objective and well-informed about cancer, its treatment, and how it is likely to affect your pet. On the other hand, assessing quality of life is very subjective. You know your pet the best. The veterinary staff sees your pet for perhaps a few hours a week in a hospital setting, while you and your family are with your pet at home on a daily basis. Assessing quality of life should be subjective, and based on your own experience and beliefs. You know your pet--and what makes them happy--best.

Palliative Care

Cancer treatment usually involves side effects, which can affect a pet's quality of life. The degree of side effects that are tolerable depends on the goal and expected outcome of treatment. If our hope is for a cure or control of cancer (which in veterinary medicine usually means one year or longer), then we may be willing to tolerate treatment side effects with a higher risk, severity, and duration. Several days or weeks of decreased quality seems reasonable in exchange for many months of good quality of life.

However, if we believe the cancer is incurable or impossible to control, then our goals become those of palliation, which is an attempt to maintain or improve quality of life without attempting to prolong it. Palliative care focuses on supportive measures such as controlling pain and infection and providing adequate nutrition. Every owner and veterinarian will have their own opinion as to what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable risks and side effects. It is important to thoroughly discuss these concerns with your veterinarian so that together you can work towards a common goal.

How do we measure quality of life in companion animals?

Because we cannot ask our pets how they feel, we have to rely on their behavior and from this infer quality of life. Measurements of quality of life have been developed by veterinary oncologists. For example, Dr. Alice Villalobos, a veterinary oncologist, developed a quality of life scale that can be used with the pet owner or veterinarian. This scale is remembered as the “HHHHHMM” scale. This stands for:

  • Hurt.
  • Hunger.
  • Hydration.
  • Hygiene.
  • Happiness.
  • Mobility.
  • More good days than bad.

Not only is this assessment a good indicator of how your pet feels overall, but it also provides useful medical information. In general, animals that score high (i.e., have close to normal behaviors) tend to tolerate treatments well and do better overall than animals who score lower on the scale.

Keep a “Cancer Log”

Quality of life means different things to different people. For some people, it is their pet chasing a ball or greeting them at the door. For others, it is simply knowing that pets are eating and sleeping through relaxing, painless days. One of the difficulties in evaluating your pet's quality of life is that it can decline gradually. For someone living with a pet, there may be no obvious daily changes, while for someone who only sees your pet every few weeks or months there could be a dramatic change. Because of this, we encourage owners to establish and document their own personal "minimum standards" of quality of life for their pet at the start of cancer treatment. For example, it might be a pet's lack of interest in eating or going on walks. It might be a pet's struggling to breathe or inability to "get comfortable". Often, it is a pet's inability to respond to his owners or his struggle to muster even a small gesture of affection. Thinking about these issues and discussing them with your family and veterinarian early in the course of therapy can help with difficult decisions later on, such as discontinuing treatment or electing euthanasia.

When is it the right time to consider euthanasia?

There comes a point in the treatment of our veterinary cancer patients when we have exhausted all reasonable treatment options, and there is a low probability for quality of life in the future. It is important to remember that just because a treatment is technically possible does not mean that it is the best thing for our pet. We are then faced with euthanasia as the last treatment option. Just as we have intervened in the pet’s life by providing aggressive medical care in an effort to improve and prolong quality of life, we intervene when these methods are no longer effective so that we do not prolong needless suffering. Euthanasia (“putting the animal to sleep”) is available in veterinary care, but should not be taken likely. It is important to talk with your veterinarian and, if available, a veterinary social worker, about euthanasia before a crisis occurs.

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