When our dogs reach old age or the tail end of a terminal disease, it can be tough to know precisely when the time is coming. We hope this guide can help you through this stressful time with information on what the end days may look like and how to help your dog until its peaceful end.
The Difference Between Illness and Death
Though we often know our dog is dying, it's still a sad and often stressful situation as they can't tell us exactly how they're feeling.
But how do you know if your doggo is just ill or showing signs a dog is dying of cancer or old age? If your dog is acting strangely, make an appointment to get them examined by a vet ASAP.
A vet will give you a proper diagnosis and tell you if your dog is truly in its end stages of life or still has some time left to enjoy with you.
For those dogs that get sent home with a terminal illness or the inevitable body shutdown from old age, you'll want to keep a close watch on your dog for signs they're nearing death and may need some help.
Senior Dogs: Signs Your Dog is Dying of Old Age
Whether human, dog or other living creature, old age is an inevitable part of life. If your dog is in its later senior years and nearing its end, it can be helpful to frame the loss of a dog as a success rather than a trauma - your dog was fortunate enough to outlast illness or disease and is now its life is coming to a natural end.
Unfortunately, not as long as us. Most dogs live 10 to 13 years on average, though it varies from breed to breed.
You'll notice plenty of behavioral changes as your dog ages, and while they don't all mean death is near, a few symptoms may be your dog giving you signs their body is shutting down. We can see these all in younger dogs who may be in the end stages of a terminal illness.
#1: Restlessness & Agitation
You may notice your dog becoming uncomfortably restless and unable to sit still. Beyond the pacing, a dog's mood may seem agitated due to pain or general discomfort within their bodies.
Restlessness may also come from a senior dog's cognitive and behavioral changes - some develop canine dementia or Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.
If your dog is nearing its end and experiencing these issues, a vet may recommend supplements or medications to help keep them relaxed.
#2: Difficulty Breathing
Labored breathing can be a sign of plenty of health issues, both minor and severe. If you notice your dog breathing heavy, extending its neck out, and gasping for air, you'll need to call the vet immediately. A dog breathing hard can mean imminent death, and a vet may be able to save your dog or help you decide to end their suffering.
Elderly dogs may have minor breathing issues as they age, making it difficult for them to lie down and walk long distances. If your dog is nearing their end, make breathing a more manageable task by keeping the food and water bowls close to minimize its need to walk. You can also get a bed ramp for dogs to allow them on and off your furniture without the need for assistance.
#3: Refusing to Eat
If you notice your sweet dog not eating, it's a significant cause for concern - most dogs live for dinner time. Once your dog starts eating less, it may be a sign that something is seriously wrong in its body, or it's beginning to shut down naturally.
Unfortunately, eating less may cause your dog to lose weight, including crucial muscle mass that can keep their strength up. You can encourage your doggo to eat more up until the end by offering some of their favorite human food. If they're having digestive issues, simple cooked chicken and rice should keep their discomfort at bay.
Vets may prescribe your dog appetite stimulants to encourage them to eat more. Does the dog die? If your dog hasn't eaten for three or more days for no medical reason, its body may be naturally shutting down from old age.
#4: Refusal to Drink
Some dogs may stop eating, stop drinking, or even both. A dog stops drinking because it doesn't have the energy to or feels sick to its stomach.
A dog refusing to drink for longer than three days may suffer from fatal kidney damage, so take your dog to a vet ASAP if you notice this behavior change.
Keep fresh water close to encourage more drinking and offer them water by holding a bowl to their face regularly - they may be more likely to accept a drink from you than seek it out on their own. You can feed your dog wet canned food instead of dry kibble to sneak in a bit more water.
#5: Pain and Physical Discomfort
When nearing death, many dogs may experience quite a bit of pain dispersed throughout their bodies, and especially in any areas of cancer or disease.
Along with a doggo avoiding certain movements and positions, you may notice them tensing their body, crying, yelping, and even biting if you touch an extra-painful area. If your dog needs help with pain management, take them to the vet.
Pain may even lead to complete immobility, especially in immobilizing arthritis and other common joint issues. This can lead to bedsores, loss of quality of life, and a load of work for the dog's caretaker, which leads some to owners making the difficult decision to euthanize.
#6: Lack of Energy and Motivation
Old dogs, but especially those nearing the end of life, tend to lie, rest, and sleep much more than they did before. They may discontinue their normal behaviors, which can be a painful experience for owners who get used to their pups' sweet greetings and goofy personalities.
The dog may no longer play with toys and sleep most of the day away. If your dog seems content to rest and doesn't appear to be in pain, you can allow some space for that and let them set the pace that makes them most comfortable.
#7: Loss of Bladder or Bowel Control
Most puppies are house-trained almost immediately. You may notice in your dog's final days, they start to have accidents in the house as their kidneys shut down, producing excessive urine.
Painful joint conditions and arthritis can also make it difficult for a dog to move without pain, and they may try to hold their bladders and bowels for as long as possible. Often, they wait too long, especially as the muscles in these areas are weaker.
#8: Wandering Habits
Some dogs may lose their social behaviors as they near death and may even wander off as they don't want to burden their families.
Comforting a Dying Dog
If your dog is close to death and nothing can be reasonably done to save them, it's time to accept and offer as much loving comfort for your canine companion as you can.
Ask the vet about pain medications and as your vet about the next steps. Give your dog as much of your time and attention as you can - the two things that make them happiest will give them great comfort. Stay physically as close to them as you can, especially if they're struggling to move or get up.
If your dog keeps wandering off by itself, place their bed in a private area, and check on them regularly. Set up pee pads inside if they can't get out to do their business, and wipe their privates with a clean, warm washcloth to prevent urine burns if they're sitting in their mess.
If you want to give your dog its favorite treats or human food, we say go for it - at this point, health and longevity are irrelevant, and the meal may give your dog some absolute joy in its end days.
What to Do if Your Dog is Dying
First, consult with a vet to better predict whether this is or is not the end yet.
Speak with your close family members to see how everyone wishes to proceed and discuss death options. You may decide to let the dog pass naturally, or you may have a vet help the process through euthanization. A vet can perform the euthanization in the office or come to your home, which is a sweet way to allow your dog to leave the world in its favorite place.
Even if you decide to go the natural route, your vet may offer hospice and end-of-life care for dogs, daily or weekly.
If you're feeling overwhelmed and upset, take some time to calm yourself before making any big decisions. A clear mind will help you figure out what you think is best for your dog.
Reach out and contact any friends or family who may want to come to say their goodbyes before your dog passes. They also likely want to provide you some emotional support to help get you through this challenging process.
You may start grieving before your dog passes - it's a difficult but necessary step in the healing process, so allow yourself to feel things as they come up and ask for help from others as needed.
Final Note: Dealing with a Dog's Passing
Watching your dog decline and pass away can be a stressful and traumatic experience. Arm yourself with the knowledge to watch for warning signs and get advice from your vet.
Reframe your thoughts as much as you can - it's an honor to help the dog you love so much leave this world, and they appreciate you being there with them.
If you're waiting for your dog to pass soon, we're sending lots of love your way – you will get through this!