Pet-owners often make profound decisions about their dog or cat, given that the law treats animals as property, ours to dispose of as we wish.
I shudder when I think about it, ashamed of the time 32 years ago when I was a coward, bowing to my landlord’s wishes to have our cat de-clawed, a brutal procedure that amputates their main weapon for self-defence.
Yes I felt bad afterwards. But I wonder if I had any idea of how the cat felt?
News-flash #1: animals can’t talk, can’t tell us how they feel, except their screams of pain.
News-flash #2: humans have a great deal of power over animals.
Excuse me if I state the obvious. But we don’t always think about it, don’t always notice as we subdue the Earth.
I’m thinking about this a great deal lately, living with a beloved dog nearing the end of her life. It’s a version of palliative care. We haven’t treated Sam’s cancer. She has a huge lump that keeps growing. We were offered the option to remove it, but Sam would have been learning how to function on three legs as a senior citizen: so we chose to leave her more or less intact while aiming to manage her symptoms.
When she seems to be in pain we give her a pain reliever, while watching for evidence that the cure is worse than the disease: such as tummy troubles brought on by the pain meds.
I’m hyper-sensitive to such questions, having argued with a doctor about my own illnesses & meds. I have the sound of a doctor engraved in my memory saying “who’s the doctor here”. But never mind, I’m lucky at how things have played out over the decades. My point is, we keep the essence of the Hippocratic Oath in mind.
“Above all do no harm.”
While Sam is the smartest dog I’ve ever seen, able to understand a great deal of what we’re saying, we still can’t pretend that we always know what she’s feeling. I wonder whether dogs conceal their pain or somehow let us know. There are behaviours dogs will exhibit that may be signs of suffering, such as hiding, sleeping more, being less interested in play, less able to run.
In fact there’s a whole category of study for people wondering about their aging pet and whether it’s time to say goodbye. The HHHHHMM Quality of Life (QoL) Scale was invented by Alice Villalobos, employing seven categories (five beginning with an H, two with an M) of happiness and comfort, to assess your animal’s quality of life, namely
Hurt (evidence of pain),
Hunger (does the creature have an appetite),
“More good days than bad”.
I’ve seen it done as a calculation, where each of the seven is rated out of ten, with a total that is somewhere between zero and 70. I’m not sure about trying to reduce a life to a number, but it’s a good wakeup call to the owner to recognize whether the animal is suffering silently.
I hope its clear why I put the headline “playing God” on this discussion. We use a QoL scale to look at the lives of the dogs or cats we own, whose lives are entirely under our control.
That word “life” is one we throw around a great deal, considering how rarely we seem to consider its meaning, let alone to consider the quality of our own lives. Perhaps I should speak for myself, but I’m going by what I see from friends and colleagues via social media.
If the pandemic has been good for one thing, it’s in the mirror it holds up to each of us, provoking questions we didn’t ask the same way before 2020. Last year I was working as a manager at the University of Toronto, while also juggling other responsibilities. Two or three times per week I’d zip to my mom’s to give her lunch. I found myself rethinking everything, as so many others are right now. I retired from my university job not just because I was over 65 but also because the risks I was taking at work were not just to my own health but to the health of my mom as well.
There’s currently an employee shortage in some workplaces. Employers are finding it harder to fill certain jobs. You’ll hear people speak of being underpaid, and perhaps that’s true. I believe that what we’re seeing in workplaces begins with the kind of questions a pandemic raises. No I’m not saying they’ve looked at a Quality of Life scale: although maybe we should all be thinking about such things. When you’re hearing about the virus and vaccines and statistics about death on a daily basis, it’s inevitable to also ask: is the job worth it? Does my job allow me to do enough of the things that make life meaningful? Or is it more a matter of safety and risk in the workplace that is at work right now? And there’s also the whole problem of childcare, so problematic when schools were closed or locked down.
I hope life is resuming. I miss concerts and operas, seeing friends across the table at restaurants. Perhaps, missing such beautiful and lovely things, we shall appreciate them rather than taking them for granted.