‘Quality of Life’ Photo Journal for Your Aging Pet

As a veterinarian who works with pet owners making end of life decisions for their beloved pet, I am often witness to how difficult those decisions can be.

I remember a visit I made to a home a few years ago where the family consisted of mom, grandma and daughter Christine*.  Christine was in her early 20s and no longer lived at home.  Bailey was their 15 year old springer spaniel, who was experiencing severe neurologic symptoms — which had worsened over several months and their regular veterinarian had been unable to alleviate.  Bailey was no longer able to move around the way she wished and was severely anxious (and likely painful) as a result.

Mom and grandma had come to a clear decision that it was time to let Bailey go and ease her discomfort and anxiety with a euthanasia appointment in their home.  I readily agreed after seeing how much Bailey was struggling to find a comfortable position to lay down and her inability to move freely in her space.  There was no real hope for improvement at her age due to the list of possible causes being very grim.

Christine, however, was really struggling.  Bailey was “her dog” and had been with her throughout most of her childhood.  She had been away at college for the last several months when Bailey had experienced her most significant decline.  She hadn’t had the chance to observe the daily struggles that mom and grandma had seen worsening over time.  And as is so often the case with young adults, she had the unending hope that her beloved friend would soon bounce back to her normal self.

With euthanasia decisions in general, I take the point of view that the decision belongs to the family.  I listen to their story and help to support whatever decision they make.  On this day I clearly emphasized how Bailey wasn’t going to improve and euthanasia was by far the kindest choice available to help relieve her real suffering.

In spite of that discussion we were at a stalemate.  Christine wasn’t ready to make that choice.  She was sobbing on the floor with Bailey in her arms and was experiencing a profound struggle to make the choice that felt right.  Mom and grandma gave me a pleading look which seemed to say, “Please help us to make her understand it’s time to let go now.  We don’t want our girl to suffer.”

I was at a loss as to how to help further.  My words hadn’t had the impact they needed.

Then an idea sprung into my mind.  On the dining room table I noticed a collection of pictures they had recently gathered of times Bailey had shared with the family.  Fifteen long years of vacations, walks, birthdays, holidays and other moments.  I walked over and picked up a picture of Bailey in her younger days on the dock with someone who I thought might be Christine.  I brought it over and asked her to tell me about what she remembered from that day.

Quality of Life Photo Journal - Springer SpanielChristine looked up and immediately her expression softened. She told me about how they had taken vacations up to the lake together and how much they had enjoyed throwing balls off the dock for Bailey to chase into the water.  She reflected on how different things had been over the last several years. Bailey didn’t have the energy to join them anymore and they hadn’t gone on any trips together for a long time.

As Christine looked at the pictures and looked down at Bailey, it was clear how different Bailey seemed to her now than how she was in the picture.  She began to speak about how she didn’t want Bailey to have to live like this and how hard it felt, but how necessary it seemed, to ease her suffering today in the company of her most special people in the world.

Pet Quality of Life Photo JournalWhen a pet owner or family is struggling with a decision about euthanasia, we often recommend filling out a daily or weekly Quality of Life journal to gain a more clear understanding of how their pet’s condition is changing over time.  I would suggest that putting together a Quality of Life photo journal would be equally as helpful.  It’s illustrative to select pictures from many years ago as well as those taken more recently.  If you need to, consider taking pictures weekly or even daily.  Much like Christine, distant family members can have a difficult time appreciating the severity of recent changes in the pet’s condition.  They may benefit greatly from the story pictures can tell.

I don’t know from where the inspiration came for me that day, but it was a gift that helped us break through the barrier and I’ll be forever grateful.  You can make use of this tool as well.  Sometimes pictures tell more than words ever can.

*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.


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