12 Signs a Dog Is Dying: What to Do When Your Dog's Health Declines
Saying Goodbye to a Beloved Pet
This is a subject that is hard for every pet owner, but learning how to recognize the common signs that an aging dog or one with a terminal illness is dying is important. We owe it to our dogs to learn more about the natural death process since they have filled our lives with so much joy for so many years. We can learn how to best help our dogs transition by offering proper end-of-life care and love and support through such a difficult time. We will break down the following topics in this article:
- Natural Death Defined
- When Is It "Time" to Go?
- Assessing Quality of Life
- Early Indications of Dying
- End-Stage Indications of Dying
- Do Dogs Know When Another Dog Dies?
- The 5 Stages of Grief
- Ceremony and Processing Death
Pet loss is not easy to discuss, but being aware of the various stages of natural death will help you through the grieving process.
Recognizing the Natural Dying Process
It's important to recognize that the dying process in dogs (much like that in humans) takes place months, weeks, and days prior to actual death. Dying, therefore, starts happening well before actual death occurs, and the process is a very individual experience.
Just as dogs are unique in their own little ways, so is the dying process for each one of them. Owners often experience anticipatory grief while their dogs undergo several physical, behavioral, and psychological changes during the transition away from this world.
When Is It "Time" to Put Your Dog to Sleep?
Many dog owners will witness only the early signs of dying and may elect euthanasia. Some dog owners who elect hospice, palliative, or end-of-life care under the guidance of a veterinarian will witness the more advanced changes which often take place when death is imminent.
Many dog owners wonder when it is "time" for their best friend to pass. The truth is, nobody knows this—we cannot determine our dog's life expectancy. We can only make an educated guess based on how the dog is feeling and which signs are being displayed. Many vets suggest judging quality of life based on whether or not your dog experiences more bad days than good. There are vets now specializing in hospice care who can also offer quality of life consultations.
Consider Your Dog's Quality of Life
Knowing when to put a dog to sleep is ultimately a personal decision considering that only owners know their dogs best. Many dog owners use quality of life scales as a measure, but these are not always accurate considering that the dying process unfolds for dogs in different ways.
For those considering hospice, palliative, or end-of-life care with their vet in support of a natural death, a helpful quality of dying scale is offered by the GRACE Consortium (Gratitude and Respect for Animals and their Care at End-of-Life).
A Good Death
Although not an easy decision, euthanasia is often a humane option for helping your dog to transition. "Eu" literally means "goodly or well" and "thanatos" means "death."
How to Tell If Your Dog Is Dying
Witnessing a pet's death unfold is a difficult thing, but it is best to be informed. Since dying is a process, it means that dog owners can actively take several steps to help their dogs through these changes. Described below are generalized early signs that a dog is dying. These common signs start taking place months to weeks prior to death, although they may also show in dogs that are just days away from death.
Early Signs a Dog Is Dying
- Decreased Appetite
- Weight Loss
- Social Detachment
End-Stage Signs a Dog Is Dying
- Decreased Thirst
- Labored Breathing
- Changes in Gum Color
12 Signs and Symptoms That a Dog Is Dying
Sleeping more, apathy towards the usual activities, poor hygiene, seeking solitude
Provide your dog with comfortable places to rest and assist with gentle grooming.
Showing disinterest in food, eating small portions, eating less regularly, demonstrating a preference for certain foods
Provide smaller meals at appropriate frequencies; be sure to offer proper nutrition, but also feed what your dog takes interest in.
Gradual or rapid reduction in weight accompanied by wasting
Your vet might prescribe an appetite stimulant or diet for weight management.
Isolation—physical and social distancing
Respect your dog's desire for solitude. Approach and speak to him or her calmly when engaging.
Difficulty getting up and effortful movements
Offer skid-proof flooring and consider using slings and harnesses to assist with mobility.
Disinterest in water and food
Make the water bowl easily available. Do not force your dog to consume water. Consult with your vet if your dog is on medication.
Hygienic pads can be placed underneath your dog and should be changed out frequently.
Help your dog to get comfortable by repositioning them to prevent bed sores. Offer them warmth or cooling as needed.
Often accompanied by labored breathing, restlessness, and inappetence
Consult with your vet to offer pain meds or homeopathic remedies.
Irregular breath patterns
Make an appointment with your vet.
Change in Gum Color
Rather than bubble-gum pink, gums appear pale, blue, or white
A dry mouth can be remedied with assistance, but gum-color change is often a result of systemic failure.
Body temperature drops and is cooler to the touch
Provide your dog with a light blanket.
Although several of the signs depicted here may be indicative of impending death, it's important to recognize that they may also be signs of several conditions that require treatment and may not necessarily result in death.
Similarly, certain conditions such as bloat and heat stroke may result in a dog's death if not attended to. If your dog is old or was diagnosed with a terminal disease, keep in contact with your vet or seek the aid of a hospice vet.
The following is an in more in-depth description of the signs and symptoms of dying in dogs. Not all dogs may show the same signs and/or they may not show up in the same order. As mentioned, death in dogs is an individualized experience.
We are so used to seeing our dogs in perpetual motion most of their lives, that the day they start acting lethargic we tend to worry and rightfully so. In the veterinary field the term "ain't doing right" (abbreviated in medical charts as ADR) is often used to depict abnormal activity in a dog that is simply not doing well.
Lethargy, of course, is not necessarily a sign of impending death in dogs and is not pathognomonic of something necessarily dire, but it can be one of the initial signs of serious illness or the dying process and tends to gradually worsen over time.
- Sleeping: A dog may start to sleep more and seek out isolation in areas where he or she can be undisturbed. Dog owners may notice how some usual behaviors and activities may start to lessen or disappear from the dog's repertoire of behaviors.
- Apathy: A dog may no longer greet the owners at the door or may no longer be interested in going on walks or playing. They may get weaker and may start walking at a slower pace.
- Worsened Hygiene: A dog may no longer groom as before.
As the lethargy progresses, they may be reluctant to get up to eat and drink and go outside to potty; they may lie down in the same area and position for extended periods of time.
How can you help your dog?
Let your dog sleep as much as he or she likes. Provide them with a comfortable and quiet place to rest. Keep your dog away from loud noises, boisterous kids, and the commotion of family members fighting.
2. Decreased Appetite
Your dog may start eating less and may have a hard time finishing his or her daily portion. This reduced appetite may be a consequence of certain cancer treatments or terminal illness. Dogs with cancer may be nauseated from chemotherapy or they may not have a large appetite due to certain tumors pushing on their digestive tract, thus requiring smaller meals. Dogs with mast cell tumors may also have reduced appetite due to the fact that these tumors release histamines which cause increased stomach acid production and nausea. Nauseous dogs may drool visibly and smack their lips.
- Disinterest in Food: A reduced appetite in dying dogs is natural. The body simply no longer needs the energy from food as it once did. Dogs may have a lack of appetite out of the blue or may go through cycles of normal and abnormal appetite.
- Picky Eating: Many dogs will eagerly eat cookies, treats, or people food, but may turn their nose at kibble or dog food. Some dogs may eat only warmed-up meals. Other dogs may develop some new quirks such as eating only if they are hand-fed or only if the food is placed on the floor.
As dog owners, we feel very saddened by their loss of appetite because we associate feeding our dogs with nourishment and taking good care of them. For dogs on medications, food is often used to hide capsules and tablets. Medicating can become particularly frustrating when food is no longer desired. Dog owners often have to get particularly creative to get their dogs to take pills.
How can you help your dog?
Warm up meals and hand-feed your dog. In the last days, feed him what he wants as long as it's not something toxic or something that may cause digestive problems. There are medications vets can prescribe to increase appetite. Prednisone, mirtazapine, and the newer product, capromorelin (Entyce), are good options. As a dog's health keeps declining, soft or liquid meals may be preferred.
In any event, it is always best that a dog with cancer eat something rather than nothing. Your veterinarian can help you choose the best option for your dog.— Robin Downing, DVM
3. Weight Loss
As dogs eat less, weight loss is common. This can be quite upsetting for dog owners to witness. It is not unusual for geriatric dogs to become very thin and emaciated just because of old age, but in many cases, this weight loss is due to some degenerative disorders such as chronic renal or hepatic insufficiencies and/or some types of malignancies.
- Cachexia: In dogs with cancer, a significant reduction in body condition takes place. This loss of muscle and fat stores is known as cachexia. Cancer cachexia in dogs may take place even though a dog may be eating fairly well. Essentially, cancer cells use up a lot of the dog's calories. This is not surprising considering how fast cancer cells tend to divide to make new cells and use up energy, explains veterinarian Dr. Damian Dressler.
How can you help your dog?
Ask your vet for appetite stimulants and discuss the option of starting your dog on a diet high in protein and fat to combat the weight loss seen in cancer cachexia.
4. Social Detachment
As dogs approach natural death they may seek out solitude. They may detach a little bit more each day from their routines and seek resting areas away from all the hustle and bustle of busy homes.
Before my uncle's dog passed, he reported that in the previous days his pretty collie dog was not showing up as much as before. He preferred sleeping in the barn rather than being present in the mornings to greet him and have breakfast as he always did in the past 10 years. Many owners, however, report that their dogs remain very present and affectionate for most of the time. Some report them even being clingy, although at times they may still seek distance.
- Isolation: As death gets closer, distancing and physical and emotional detachment may become more common in dogs. Some dog owners even report noticing this detachment in their dog's eyes. "It's almost is if Ranger wasn't fully there when I looked into his eyes," my client reported when I asked her about her dog's final days.
How can you help your dog?
Respect your dog's need for peace and quiet. Approach him or her quietly to prevent startling them. Calmly touch them and reassure them. Avoid loud noises or bright lights. Consider spraying some Rescue Remedy or Adaptil in the room.
Imminent Signs a Dog Is Dying
There are some signs that are more likely to occur as a dog is days away from death. As mentioned, there are no rules set when it comes to the dying process and some signs may pop up earlier than expected.
Most dog owners who elect euthanasia after witnessing the early signs may not witness the signs described here; however, in some cases it can happen that natural death in dogs unfolds either because the owners elect to do hospice care with assistance from a vet or the dog has a fast-moving illness that catches them off guard (the vet may be unavailable when the dog passes).
It is always best to be prepared. Most towns and cities have emergency vets on staff 24/7. Many vets now offer house calls. There is even a new franchise company called Lap of Love that specializes in vets offering hospice care and humane euthanasia at home.
5. Reduced Mobility
As a dog nears death, he or she will become less mobile. The dog may start getting weak and no longer have enough strength to get up. Their legs may start giving out or they may have trouble climbing stairs and have difficulty navigating slippery floors. As things progress, the dog may no longer be able to get up and walk around; some may also struggle to lift their heads.
How can you help your dog?
Provide non-skid flooring. Some dogs require assistance getting around. There are several mobility harnesses, slings, carts, and wheelchairs available nowadays. A towel or blanket placed under a dog's belly may come in handy to help support his or her weight. As your dog no longer gets up to potty or drink, place some incontinence pads underneath them and offer water as needed as long as the dog can swallow.
6. Decreased Thirst
Water and food provide energy and hydration and are meant to sustain life, not death. It is normal for dying dogs to want only soft foods and liquids such as bone broth or water.
- Loss of the Swallow Reflex: As the dog advances towards death, the ability to swallow gradually reduces. Dogs may be seen struggling to chew hard foods like kibble and they may cough and choke on solid foods. As the dog's digestive system starts to get weaker, eating solid food becomes uncomfortable. Dogs may no longer walk to the water bowl as usual.
How can you help your dog?
If a dog is mobile and able to swallow, ensure easy access to food and water. If the dog is in a weakened state, caution is needed when offering water. Forcing water down a dog's throat if the dog lacks the ability to swallow may cause choking and aspiration pneumonia. If your dog is on medications, dehydration may potentiate their effects and cause liver damage or similar organ damage. Consult with your vet for instructions to avoid side effects.
This refers to both bladder and bowel incontinence. Incontinence may occur due to a lack of sphincter control; the dog may soil easily because he or she is weak and can no longer get up and move around as he used to. As the dog stops eating and drinking, accidents will occur less frequently considering that gastrointestinal functions are starting to shut down.
How can you help your dog?
Keep pads under your dog if he or she is no longer mobile and clean up messes as soon as you can. The failure to clean up messes may lead to sores caused by waste irritating the skin.
Dog owners may notice their dog becoming restless. It's important to understand whether or not this is part of the natural process or whether this is an indication of discomfort either due to pain or something else that needs to be addressed.
- Change in Behavior: Dogs may pant, get up, and change resting spots frequently, lick their paws, or vocalize.
- Positioning: A dog that is unable to walk and lays down most of the time may be trying to communicate a need to drink, relieve themselves, or a need to be repositioned. Dogs, like humans who are bedridden, may develop bed sores and pain if they lie on the same side for hours on end. It's important to turn these dogs every 2–4 hours as needed. This is a two-person job; one person should hold the front legs and the second person should hold the rear legs while the dog is gently turned from one side to the other.
How can you help your dog?
Determine whether your dog is too hot or cold, whether they are thirsty or need to be turned. Keep calming aids on hand if needed. Talk to your dog softly and use a gentle touch.
Animal hospice accepts that it is the pet owner’s ethical and legal right and responsibility to decide whether the terminally ill animal will die by euthanasia or by hospice-supported natural death. Animal hospice does not accept a pet owner’s decision to allow a pet to die without euthanasia unless effective measures are in place to alleviate discomfort under the care of a licensed veterinarian. Such practices are considered unethical and inhumane.— American Animal Hospital Association
It is not unusual for a dying dog to experience pain, so dogs owners may have pain relievers on hand as prescribed by the vet. Dogs that are unable to swallow may require drugs given by injection. These can be provided by a vet specializing in hospice care. Homeopathic remedies in pellet form may be suitable to ease some discomfort and can also be delivered as a mouth melt.
How can you help your dog?
Have your vet check on your dog and keep quick-acting pain meds handy.
10. Labored Breathing
You have been familiar with your dog's breathing for many years, and now you notice that your dog's breathing pattern is changing. As dogs near death, it is common for their breathing patterns to change or for them to have a difficult time breathing. This change may take place just hours or days prior to death and is a sign that the dog's body is beginning to slowly shut down. Here's what you'll observe:
- Irregular Breathing: Slower, irregular breaths with pausing in between may be noted. As death nears, the dog may open and close his or her mouth.
- Heavy Breathing: While changes in breathing patterns are common when death is near, labored breathing may also take place when a dog is running a fever, is in pain, or has fluid in his chest.
How can you help your dog?
Ask your vet to check on your dog and make sure he or she is not congested or in distress.
11. Changes in Gum Color
Looking at the dog's gums is an optimum reference when it comes to determining a dog's health status. In a healthy dog, you want to see nice bubblegum-pink gums. These pink gums are proof of oxygen-rich blood circulating throughout the dog's body. The gums are also typically moist. If the blood vessels aren't vascularized and oxygenated well, changes in color may be observed:
- Abnormal Color: In a dying dog or in a dog in critical condition, the gums and tongue tend to gradually turn pale or blue and then eventually white. The mouth also becomes dry. In dogs who cannot swallow, fluid may leak from the mouth.
How can you help your dog?
There is not much that can be done to reverse the gum color changes caused by reduced circulation. If your dog is anemic, due to a bleeding cancer, you can ask your vet about an emergency transfusion, but in many cases this may only provide transient relief. Yunnan Baiyao emergency pills (the red pills found in the middle of the packet), can sometimes help for acute hemorrhage due to hemangiosarcoma., but won't work for major, massive bleedings. Consult with a vet. He or she may suggest a a PCV (a hematocrit level) to asses the situation. For critical cases, humane euthanasia may be elected.
For the dry mouth and dry gums, you can help keep the lips and gums moist with lukewarm water by using a cotton swab if the dog appears to appreciate this.
12. Cool Body
As things progress and death inevitably approaches, the body cools down because of reduced circulation. Owners often notice cold paws and cooler breath. This is normal considering that the body temperature lowers and blood pressure drops before death.
How can you help your dog?
Keep a very light blanket on your dog for comfort, but make sure it's a very light one as a regular blanket may feel very heavy on a dying dog.
When an animal hospice patient is in the last hours of life, recognition and alleviation of pain are top priorities for the pet owner and the healthcare team. Pain should be addressed as soon as it is suspected, when physiologic or behavioral signs are noted. Contrary to a common fear, there is no evidence to suggest that pain suddenly intensifies during active dying.— American Animal Hospital Association
Do Dogs Know When a Dog Dies?
Yes. A study published in the journal Animals observed 159 dogs and 152 cats who had recently lost an animal family member. It was revealed that many of the animals in the study continuously went to check on their companion's favorite places in the home. Other trending behaviors included increased clinginess in both cats and dogs, increased napping in dogs, increased vocalizations in cats, and reduced appetite in both dogs and cats.
What Are the Stages of Grief?
The stages of grief are nonlinear, but understanding that one may experience each and every emotion helps to aid in the healing process. Here are the five stages of grief:
- Denial: Denial and shock go hand-in-hand. You may have a hard time accepting that your pet is truly gone. Shock may result in the absence of emotion; one may go about daily life as if nothing has changed. This is part of the normal grieving process.
- Anger: Anger is simply a symptom of pain. An owner may experience a sense of injustice—"Why did my dog have to die if I took such good care of him?" Anger is best not internalized and should be dealt with in a healthy manner.
- Bargaining: Bargaining is a common symptom of grief. Individuals may experience bargaining early on as a form of anticipatory grief. This may involve wishing your dog can be spared of a terminal diagnosis.
- Depression: Depression occurs near or shortly after death. The owner may feel apathetic towards normal activities or unable to take care of themselves. Intense sadness is commonly associated with depression.
- Acceptance: Acceptance often occurs as part of the healing process. Acceptance allows one to comprehend the loss but continue to move on in life and cope. Acceptance does not mean forgetting, it simply means find a way to live and continue to love in the present.
Why Is My Dog Acting Fine If He or She Is Dying?
Death generally unfolds following several milestones, but not all dogs will stop at each milestone. Some dogs may skip some or go through them very quickly, while others may take months to reach the end of their journey. It's important, therefore, to recognize that none, some, or all of the changes described above may be observed.
You may stumble on some dogs who remain active, eating, and up on their feet up to their final day, while others may be sluggish and sleep for hours on end in their final weeks. There are no rules set in stone.
Some dog owners report a surge of energy a few days prior to a dog's death. The dog suddenly walks or eats and appears to have more energy. As pleasant as this is, it's often short-lived and not a sign of getting better, rather, it's often a sign of nearing death—the signs of dying return and are often more pronounced.
What to Know About Death and Transition
After a dog displays some or several of the signs described above, death takes place. Sometimes muscle twitching may be observed immediately after death. Breathing or gasping may be noticed too; it's not to get oxygen though, but a reflex of the nerves. These bodily reactions are part of the natural event of dying and should not be interpreted as suffering.
The bladder or bowels may empty. Diarrhea may seep out. Keeping towels under the dog may absorb messes. The eyes of a dead dog remain open. After a few minutes, it's normal for the cornea to assume a glassy appearance. Death rattle is not as common in dogs as it is in humans.
How to Confirm If Your Pet Has Died
Death is usually confirmed by using a stethoscope and listening for lack of a heartbeat, but what is death? Death is the collapse of the dog's cardiovascular system, which translates into the failure of oxygen delivery to the tissues, cells, and vital organs of the body. It's the end of the journey.
Death in dogs may occur naturally or through injection of euthanasia solution by the vet. Most dogs are euthanized by a vet, but more and more owners are now electing hospice care for their dogs with the assistance of a vet. Hospice care doesn't mean that euthanasia is never considered. On the contrary, it is considered as a last option should the dog be in unmanageable pain.
It's important that dog owners remain in constant contact with their vets during this time and that they keep injectable pain relievers on hand should the dog no longer be capable of taking pills by mouth. Work with a vet that specializes in hospice care to make sure your dog is comfortable as much as possible throughout the process.
Death is quite a journey. It is part of life and sadly it's one that all of us dog owners will eventually have to face at one time or another. As the saying goes though, "forewarned is forearmed." Being acquainted with the dying process in dogs offers an important advantage.
What Should I Do If My Dog Dies at Home?
In an ideal situation, your veterinarian will be with you at the time of your dog's passing. Many veterinary clinics will collect your beloved pet's body and offer cremation services and burial services for the deceased. Mobile veterinarians, regular cremation services, and animal control can also be of help. If these services are unavailable to you, here are some tips on what to do:
- If available, wear gloves when handling your beloved pet.
- Put your dog's body on a dog bed, on blankets, or on a sheet. Bodily fluids may leave the body at any point and soil linens, so make sure you can part with these items.
- Be mentally prepared and expect rigor mortis and stiffening to take place within hours.
- Wrap your beloved pet in a blanket and consider placing them on top of a large trash bag to prevent bodily fluid leakage.
- It is best to store your dog's body in a cool, private place until you can contact a professional service.
- Make sure to recruit emotional and mental support. Do not feel you have to go through this alone.
- AAHA/IAAHPC End-of-Life Care Guidelines. American Animal Hospital Association (2016).
- Peaceful: The Quality of Dying Checklist for Hospice-Supported Natural Dying. GRACE Animal Hospice Consortium.
- Ball, L. When Your Dog Has Cancer: Making the Right Decisions for You and Your DogBook.
- Van de Poll, Wendy. My Dog Is Dying: What Do I Do?: Emotions, Decisions, and Options for Healing. Center for Pet Loss Grief. March 2, 2016.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Will a dying dog vomit up a white liquid?
It is not unusual for a dying dog to vomit. The white liquid may be mucus which is is often produced in the GI tract when it is irritated. In dogs dying from heart problems (like heartworm disease) coughing up and vomiting foam is not unusual. Dogs dying from bloat may retch and vomit only small amounts of foam. If there is no more swallowing, saliva may pool and cause drooling or there may be nausea if the dog is off food. All in all though, vomiting a white liquid is not specific enough to indicate one disease or disorder, and it may be seen in a dying dog but also in a non-dying dog.Helpful 131
Where should we prepare to take the dog’s body once she has passed and how much does it cost?
If you are planning to do cremation, several of the companies will come to your home to pick up the body. Costs may obviously vary from one place and another. I will give you a rough estimate based on what I paid for when my dog passed away. The transport to the cremation facility was $75 (I think these costs vary based on mileage, we are pretty far out of town) so if you live in town, these may be considerably lower. And then private cremation was $215. The cremation costs vary based on a pet's weight, so this is based on a large dog. Communal cremation should be considerably lower. I am so sorry you are going through this, but careful planning seems to make it all a bit less stressful.Helpful 106
Is my female dog's black diarrhea and gas a sign that it is dying?
Black diarrhea and gas can be signs of several medical conditions and, are therefore, not necessarily a sign of a dog dying. However, black diarrhea can be potentially serious, and left untreated, can be life threatening. Black diarrhea can be indicative of bleeding in the upper digestive tract. When blood is digested, it turns dark giving stools a dark color. This is medically known as melena. Melena can be a sign of a bleeding stomach ulcer, which can be seen in dogs given aspirin, steroids or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, it can be seen in dogs who ingested rat poison or who have serious blood clotting disorders or bleeding cancers. If you are seeing black diarrhea, please see your vet at your earliest convenience. Chances are, this can be managed if caught early enough.Helpful 60
How do I know if my dog is dying of old age? My 12-year-old lab/chow with white gums, not eating or drinking.
The symptoms you are listing are very concerning. White gums can be indicative of anemia which can be seen in dogs with several conditions such as bleeding cancers (a common one is hemangiosarcoma), blood clotting disorders, heavy parasite loads, and ingestion of rat poison, just to name a few. White gums are caused by the dog not having enough red blood cells circulating in the blood. Dogs with white gums can be in shock from this and become weak and lose appetite. If your dog has white gums and is not eating or drinking, please see your vet at your earliest convenience. Caught early, sometimes shock can be reversed by stabilizing the dog and supportive care (e.g. blood transfusion) to help him pull through the crisis.Helpful 54
From the list of 12 signs that a dog may be dying, my doh only has one of them which is she can no longer jump up into bed. I have to lift her back end, but she's still eating and drinking. Any idea what could be going on?
This can simply be a back problem or a hip problem or some other orthopedic issue, commonly seen in dogs who are aging. Have your dog see the vet. Your vet can prescribe pain relievers that can help her mobility. It's very good that she is eating and drinking.Helpful 22
© 2018 Adrienne Janet Farricelli