Perhaps the hardest part of owning a pet is making difficult
decisions when a beloved companion becomes seriously ill.
That’s why Michigan State University researchers are
developing a new tool to help people assess their ailing pets’ quality of life,
a key factor in decisions about when to order life-prolonging procedures and
when an animal’s suffering means it’s time to let go.
In a new paper in the Journal of the American Veterinary
Medical Association, MSU researchers describe a survey they created to help pet
owners monitor the quality of life of dogs undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
Veterinarians can use their training, experience and
scientific knowledge to objectively assess an animal’s quality of life in
response to treatment, said lead author Maria Iliopoulou, an MSU-trained
veterinarian and a doctoral student in the Department of Community,
Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies. But outside the vet’s office, pet
owners rely on their own subjective impressions of the animal’s well-being.
Knowing your pet and
“Dogs obviously can’t tell you how they’re feeling, and
sometimes pet owners may not know what changes in canine behaviour they should
pay attention to,” Iliopoulou said. “By having this tool, we can help owners
see what’s really going on with the animal to improve decision making and
facilitate the human-animal bond under the challenging circumstances of cancer
diagnosis and treatment.”
For the study, dog owners completed a questionnaire at the
time of diagnosis about how the animal was behaving then and how they typically
behaved six months prior. Follow-up questionnaires filled out three and six
weeks later documented changes in behavior as the dogs underwent chemo.
Meanwhile, the veterinarians filled out shorter surveys based on their
“We wanted to see if the owner and the clinician would
agree,” Iliopoulou said. “The owner knows the pet, and the clinician knows the
science. That’s what the survey is all about, to identify components of a good
quality of life and verbalize them in an understandable way to facilitate
client and clinician communication regarding patient-care decisions.”
options for your pet
As it turned out, responses to the questions by owners and
veterinarians were fairly well-matched. That finding told the researchers the
questionnaire was a helpful way to find common ground for treatment decisions.
The survey responses matched each other – and matched
scientific data from the dogs’ medical records – particularly closely on three
questions involving changes in the dogs’ play behavior, clinical signs of
disease and canine happiness as perceived by the owner. Iliopoulou said the
agreement on those questions makes them effective indicators of quality of life
that can be used in animal cancer clinics, and in future studies.
With 29 participants, all at the MSU Animal Cancer Care
Clinic, it’s hard to draw broad conclusions from the relatively small pilot
study. Still, Iliopoulou said the results were significant enough that she’s
planning a follow-up study with hundreds of dogs and owners. She also hopes the
survey can eventually be adapted for animals with other illnesses.