Adrienne is a dog trainer and former veterinary assistant. She has taken several specialized courses on hospice care for dogs.
Do Dogs Know When They're Dying?
Whether dogs know when they are dying is something that has puzzled many dog owners across the globe.
Since dogs cannot talk, we may really never know the exact answer, but we can deduce something based on how they act.
While many people may argue that dogs lack the cognitive abilities to fully understand the concept of death, there are chances they do understand some basics and that they may have the emotional ability to predict that a major change is occurring in their state of health.
It's therefore important to keep an open mind on the topic, especially considering certain behaviors we may witness in dogs in the days or hours preceding their death.
Of course, this relates more to the gradual decline seen in dogs with chronic, progressive illnesses, versus the sudden, accidental death as it may happen in the case of a dog being run over from a car.
Signs of Dogs Knowing When They are Dying
These signs are not the ultimate proof of dogs knowing they are dying, but they can be suggestive of it. They must therefore be taken with a grain of salt considering that we may never know the real answer.
It's important to recognize that dying is an individual experience. As they get closer to death, dogs may therefore react in different ways.
Becoming More Affectionate
Several dog owners report their dogs becoming more affectionate and clingy when they are close to dying.
This need for attention can be due to them feeling more vulnerable and in need of more attention.
Our sweet Rottweiler who was diagnosed with cancer in her old age wanted to be pet until her last moment. Although she was weak, she would give us a sign to continue petting her with a movement of her eyes.
That was a reflection of how she was in life: a dog eager to have attention and being pampered. She was loved and talked to until the very end when she passed.
Withdrawing from the World
On the other hand, some dogs may become withdrawn and may no longer solicit much attention. They may sleep more and become disinterested in their surroundings.
Once again, whether the dog wants more or less attention may vary from one dog and another, based on their different personalities and how they are feeling.
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If you are unsure, it's not a bad idea to occasionally sit down next to the dog to let him know you are there for him and watch how he reacts. He may reach out a paw or place his head on your lap. If he does not, don't take it personally because, as mentioned, dying is an individual process and every dog may react differently.
Giving You That "Look"
Countless dog owners attest that their dogs gave them a special look that just told them they were 'ready to go.' Many dog owners rely on this look to decide when their dogs must be put to sleep.
Explaining the look is not easy, apparently, it's a look that dog owners have never witnessed before. Some describe it as being a loving look, while others described a confused, tired or sad look.
When I worked for a veterinary hospital, many dog owners described to me that that look was what convinced them to make the appointment to put their dog to sleep.
Do Dogs Wander Off to Die?
There is the belief that, in natural settings, as wild animals get frail, they may separate from their social group and seek out an isolated spot. If they fail to do that, natural predators would easily single them out from the group and kill them.
On top of this, a sick or wounded animal could hold back the group making them more likely to be attacked by predators, therefore they would seek solitude and remain behind to protect them.
Such animals do not typically linger for long due to the fact that they remain vulnerable and aren't protected from predators and the elements.
In domesticated settings though, dogs have us as their protectors and this allows them to hold on to life for longer. Shelter, medications and our loving support work wonders in improving the length and quality of life of our pet dogs.
However, it may still be possible for dogs to still follow the instinct to seek solitude and find a spot to die when it's their time.
Do Dogs Hide to Die to Spare Us From Witnessing Their Death?
Many may speculate that dogs wander off to die to spare their family from witnessing their death and the sadness of watching them die.
However, there are likely fewer "romantic" dynamics going on. The dog may not really purposely seek a spot "to die," but may just wander to seek a place that feels good and then just happens to pass away there.
For instance, if the dog has a fever, he or she may wander off and lie down somewhere cool, while if the dog's temperature is dropping, he may lie down somewhere warm and sunny.
Or on another occasion, in a busy household with children and lots of noises, the dog may seek a quiet place away from the hustle and bustle he normally enjoyed when he was in full health, sort of like how we humans would do so when we feel very sick and just want to curl up in bed away from others.
If an owner is very sad and keeps crying and never leaves the dog alone, or if the owner insists on feeding the dog when the dog doesn't want to eat or giving him/her bitter pills to swallow or keeps placing a blanket over the dog when the dog dislikes that, the dog may seek some "respite" by looking for a spot where he can lie quietly and rest.
More worrisome is the scenario of elderly dogs who happen to wander outdoors and who become disoriented and simply no longer can find their way back home or who happen to slide off a cliff or into a creek.
Do Dogs Know When They Are Being Put to Sleep?
This is not easy to answer, but it's highly likely they don't know they are being put to sleep, in the same way that they don't know when they are undergoing a surgical procedure.
What they do know is that they are going to the vet's office and will feel all the associated emotions, which may vary based on their overall lifetime of collected experiences there.
If your dog always disliked going to the vet, you should expect him to continue to dislike going there. If your dog likes to go to the vet, you should expect him to feel similar positive emotions.
The Impact of the Adrenaline Surge
One dynamic to keep in mind is the impact of adrenaline. Basically, the strong emotions of fear of going to the vet or excitement cause an adrenaline surge which may sometimes be confused with the dog "feeling better."
On several occasions when working for the vet, we had owners come in to put their cats or dogs to sleep and remark how their pets acted suddenly energetic after being lethargic at home as if on their deathbeds.
This has triggered owners to sometimes have a change of heart and re-schedule, only to schedule again later, because, once back home, after the adrenaline surge weaned off, their pets were back to acting sickly, or even feeling worse than before.
The Impact of Human Emotions
Dogs are masters in feeling their owners' emotions and therefore, dogs being put to sleep may feel the emotions of their humans. If you are sad, anxious or scared, your dog will likely sense that and react accordingly.
This may lead to behaviors that may be confused for "dogs knowing what was about to happen" such as dogs licking their owner's tears, acting very affectionate or dogs acting nervous.
Disliking Being at the Vet
As mentioned, If your dog always disliked going to the vet, you should expect him to continue to dislike it.
If your dog refuses to enter the room or fights restraint and refuses to stay still, it's unlikely he is doing that because he knows that he is being put to sleep. Most likely instead, he's just behaving the same way he would as if he were to be visited by the vet and get some shots.
If your dog is very nervous at the vet or hates needles, and you need to put him to sleep, consider asking your vet for sedatives to give beforehand, or consider having your vet come to your home to put your dog to sleep.
There are many vets who do house calls nowadays, and a company known as "Lap of Love," which specializes in end-of-life care, now operates in many different states.
The Bottom Line
In the grand scheme of things, it appears that humans are the only animals who are capable of understanding the concept of death, but we all know too well how intelligent dogs are, and this gives us plenty of good reasons to doubt this rather broad belief.
Many dog owners report changes in their dogs that appear to be suggestive of them acknowledging their impending deaths.
With the combination of a dog's high level of intelligence and intuition, it's, therefore, best to err on the side of caution, and believe that, as sentient beings, dogs are capable of understanding the dying process.
Monsó, S. How to Tell If Animals Can Understand Death. Erkenn (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-019-00187-2
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Adrienne Farricelli