Signs That A Dog Is Dying
By Chyrle Bonk, DVM May 14, 2020
We all wish that our furry best friends could live forever. I know that I certainly want to keep my 16 year old dog with me for a few more years. However, there inevitably comes a time in every dog parent’s friendship where you’ll have to say goodbye to your furry companion forever. Knowing the signs that a dog is dying will help you keep them comfortable, know when to make the tough decision to euthanize, and how to cope with them being gone.
What Are the Signs That A Dog Is Dying?
As with disease or injury, imminent death also has signs to alert you. Whether death is due to old age, poor health, or injury, most signs of death are similar. Let’s go over the signs.
- Loss of interest
As the days, hours, and minutes get closer to a dog’s death, they may lose interest in things that they normally love, such as walks, food, toys, and family members. This is often due to brain function shutting down that may also be accompanied by confusion and disorientation
- Loss of energy
A dog’s loss of interest in things as they near death can also be due to a loss of energy. Their body becomes depleted of energy, and they may prefer to lie still in one spot. The place they choose to lie still may be a familiar favorite one or an odd, tucked out of the way area.
- Weight loss
Dying dogs will generally lose weight either due to a lack of appetite or decreased muscle mass from a lack of exercise. Older or sick dogs may lose weight over a long period of time with the most drastic weight loss being right at the end.
- Bladder and bowel control
Whether it’s due to organ shut down or weakness, dying dogs will often lose control of their bladder and bowel function, causing them to have accidents wherever and whenever they lie down.
- Change in appetite
Dogs that are getting closer to death will often eat less or not at all. They just don’t need the energy or they just won’t feel like eating. Since most dogs consider food to be a dear friend, a loss of appetite is usually a significant change that will alert you that the end is near.
- Change in respiration
Shallow, slow, or irregular breathing are all signs that a dog’s time is near. They may gasp, struggle to draw a breath, or wait longer periods between inhaling and exhaling a breath. This could be due to discomfort, lack of energy, or regulation of normal body functions.
- Vacant expression
For many years, you probably enjoyed the twinkle in your dog’s eye that tells you when they are happy to see you, and that you are the center of their world. Even though they still may think the same way about you, dogs that are close to death may lose that twinkle, light, life, or whatever you choose to call, it in their eyes. Instead they have a vacant dull expression.
What Are The Reasons That Dogs Die?
The reasons why a dog may die can be very varied and unpredictable. Some of these reasons are foreseen, while others take you by surprise. However, the end result is the same. Understanding some of the reasons that dogs die will help you to better recognize and prevent those that can be prevented and prepare for those that can’t.
- Old age
With any luck, your canine companion will make it to a ripe old age, free from disease and other health issues. What’s considered old for a dog will depend on their breed. In general, the larger the dog, the shorter their lifespan. Just ask any Great Dane parents making it to a double digit age number is a big deal. On the other hand, it’s no surprise to have a Yorkie live well into their late teen years. Longevity will also depend on genetics and overall health. The better care you provide to your dog in their younger years, the more birthdays they will celebrate in life.
No dog is completely immune to diseases and illnesses, which often are reasons that cut a dog’s life short. Some diseases are preventable and others are not. Some are treatable and others are not. Regular veterinary care, proper nutrition and exercise, and routine vaccinations can play a huge role in your dog’s ability to ward of diseases that can bring about an untimely death.
It’s a big, scary world out there full of potential accident-causing events. Accidents that can end a dog’s life can range from being hit by a car, attacked by another animal, or an accidental poisoning with a toxic substance. Keeping your dog safely confined in a fenced yard and on a leash when they’re outside will help prevent many accidents. Supervision is also crucial.
Do Dogs Know When They Are Dying?
Whatever the cause of a dog’s death, we humans often wonder if dogs know when they are dying and if other animals know that their companion is dead. The short answer is we don’t know. Until we’re able to look inside a dog’s brain and learn their thoughts, we just have to make speculations based on their actions.
There are many stories out there about dogs that acted differently and tried to get to their owners right before their death. Did they know they were dying or did they just feel unwell and wanted to seek comfort? On the other hand, there are many stories about other pets refusing to leave the body of their deceased friend. Again, do they understand that their friend is dead or are they just having a hard time saying goodbye?
One thing we know for sure is death is a part of life. Dogs don’t worry about death or dread it the same way some people do. However, dogs feed off of our energy. So if you’re distraught and frightened when your dog’s time is near, then they will be too. If you’re calm and comforting, then they will be as well.
How Do You Make A Dying Dog Comfortable?
Again, dogs respond to your manner. In order to be a comforting presence in your dog’s final days, you need to be at peace with their departure. Try to soothe them by just being near. Many dogs will seek the familiar and want to spend time with those they know best in places that they are comfortable at. Now is not the time for long trips, new introductions, or other stressful events.
Try to maintain your normal schedule for as long as possible. If this means a walk first thing in the morning, then do it as long as your dog is able. You may have to shorten the distance or slow the pace, but if it gives your dog some happiness, it will be worth it. Dogs thrive on a regular schedule. Whenever possible, try to reduce stress by sticking to the norm.
Let your dog dictate their needs and wants. If they want to spend the afternoon outside, then let them out as long as they can do it safely. Continue to offer them food and water even if they don’t want it, and provide them with a comfortable bed. Since some dogs will experience incontinence, you may opt for an easy to wash bed to make life easier on you.
With some terminal illnesses or injuries, medication may help. Talk to your veterinarian about prescribing pain medications or sedatives to help ease your dog’s discomfort or anxiety in order to make the transition a little more smoothly.
Above all, show them love, speak to them, pet them, and spend time with them. Even if they don’t respond, rest assured they know you’re there.
When Should You Make The Difficult Decision To Euthanize A Dog?
I’m often asked as a veterinarian how I handle euthanasia. It’s difficult, but the truth is euthanasia should be looked at as a privilege that we can give to our dog. It’s a way of ending their pain and discomfort and returning them to peace.
Many dog parents are nervous about euthanasia because they don’t want to do it before it’s time. This is a completely valid concern and something that I am often asked. However, the decision is best made by you since you are the one that knows your dog. When confronted with the question of when to euthanize a dog, my feelings are this: how differently are they acting from normal? Are they still eating or enjoying their usual things in life? Are they suffering? From here, it’s up to you to decide how you think your dog is feeling and how quickly their health may be declining. Remember, it’s always nice to end on a good note rather than a miserable one. Sometimes dog parents will wait to euthanize due to selfish reasons, and cause their dog to experience unnecessary suffering.
Having an understanding of your dog will help you make this difficult decision. If your dog no longer seems to enjoy life or is in constant pain or discomfort, then it’s usually best to help them find peace elsewhere.
What To Do When Your Dog Dies?
After your best friend has passed, there’s two stages that need your consideration. The first stage is the right then and there. Whether your dog dies because of natural causes or euthanasia, be sure to say your goodbyes. Give yourself and family members time for one last pet, kiss, hug, or comforting word.
You will then need to decide what to do with your dog’s body. If burial is not an option, then talk to your veterinarian. They may be able to provide cremation, refer you to a pet cemetery, or have other methods of disposal available.
The next stage follows in the coming days, weeks, months, or even years. Coping with the loss of a pet is a big deal, so give yourself time. Talk to someone if necessary and allow yourself to grieve. Everybody handles loss in a different way. So find the method that is best for you, and let it take as long as necessary. You may choose to memorialize your dog with a plaque, portrait, or memento or you may find solace in the words of the popular poem The Rainbow Bridge.
Losing a dog is never easy. Yet it’s something that we all must face from the moment we bring our furry friend home for the first time. Recognizing the signs that a dog is near the end of their life will better help you comfort your pup and make the transition smoother for both of you.