Physical Signs a Dog is Dying

Most, but not all canine deaths are the result of terminal diseases that typically occurs in two stages, early (pre-active dying) and active dying. Pre-active dying can last for weeks or months while active dying is the final irreversible stage, and will die within days.

The majority of companion animals are humanely euthanised when their pain and suffering are no longer able to be managed and their quality of life is severely compromised. The focus of this article relates to terminal diseases such as kidney disease or cancer are leading causes of dog euthanasia, but in some cases, the dog may not have a terminal disease but is in severe pain due to osteoarthritis which can no longer be effectively managed, but the dog is not actively dying.

Active dying symptoms

Signs and symptoms can vary depending on the underlying condition and each death is unique, however, during the final phase of dying, your dog will typically display the ten following signs.

Symptom
Cause
Loss of appetite As the body is shutting down, its need for food declines, in addition, dogs in the late stage of a terminal disease often experience nausea, and difficulty swallowing, which can make it difficult for them to eat.
Decreased urine output Decreased thirst and kidney dysfunction mean there is a marked decrease in the amount of urine the dog produces.
Extreme lethargy The dog spends most of his or her time sleeping and has little energy to move around. If the dog is in pain, he or she may move around in discomfort.
Cheyne-Stokes breathing An irregular breathing pattern occurs when the dog is close to death in which the dog
experiences alternative periods of apnea (a cessation in breathing)
followed by hypernea (gasping for air).
Agonal breathing Slow, shallow, irregular respirations which is the last respiratory pattern before death.
Terminal respiratory secretions Saliva and bronchial secretions build up at the back of the throat as swallowing and coughing
reflexes decline which can cause a gurgling or rattling sound, known as death rattle.
Changes in gum colour Circulation drops and there is less oxygen in the tissues (hypoxia), and the gums take on a blue hue
Significant weight loss As the dog eats less, he or she can lose a significant amount of weight. Certain diseases such as cancer and hyperthyroidism also cause the dog to lose weight.
Decreased body temperature The normal temperature for healthy cats is 38.3 – 39.2°C but as the dog nears death, a decrease in temperature may occur as the body becomes less efficient at regulating core temperature.
Loss of consciousness As the organs shut down, the dog may experience periods of unconsciousness, during the final stage, he or she will lose complete consciousness.

 

When is the right time to say goodbye?

It is common for pet owners to experience feelings of guilt when it comes to deciding when to euthanise a dog, questioning if they acted too early or waited too long. There is no right time, we have to work alongside the dog’s veterinarian to ensure the dog is comfortable and has a good quality of life.

When a dog is displaying the active dying symptoms outlined above, euthanasia is the kindest thing to do. By this stage, there is almost no quality of life, and none of us wants to prolong the suffering of our beloved pets.

Questions to ask:
  • Keep a diary of your dog’s good and bad days, do the bad days outweigh the good?
  • Is he or she still able to do the things they enjoy such as walks, chasing a ball, or meeting you at the door?
  • Can the dog’s symptoms be effectively managed?
  • What will the dog miss out on if he or she is not here tomorrow?
  • Has palliative (hospice) care been exhausted? Are there any further options to explore?
  • Am I keeping the dog alive for me or him/her?

Dr Alice Villalobos created a ‘Quality of Life or HHHHHMM Scale‘ which allows caregivers and veterinarians to evaluate the dog’s quality of life. Each question is given a mark between 1 – 10. A mark of 35 or above represents an acceptable quality of life.



HURT

Adequate pain control, including breathing ability, is first and foremost on the scale. Is the pet’s pain successfully managed? Is he/she running/playing as often and vigorously as usual? Does he/she pant or groom excessively? (often signs of pain)


HUNGER
Is the pet eating enough? Is the pet willing to eat his/her normal
dog food, or is only enticed
to eat “treats” or “junk food?” Does hand feeding help?


HYDRATION
Is the patient dehydrated? If you pull up a small “tent” of skin on
the pet’s head, does it
snap back into place as yours does? If you push a finger onto the pet’s gums, does it return to normal
pink color in less than 1.5 seconds?


HYGIENE
What does the pet’s coat look like? Does he/she have the same lustre and shine to the coat that was present as a younger animal?


HAPPINESS
Does the pet express joy and interest? Is the pet responsive to things around him or her (family, toys, etc.)? Is the pet depressed, lonely, anxious, bored or afraid?


MOBILITY
Can the patient get up without assistance? Does the pet need human or mechanical help (e.g., difficulty rising on a tile floor)? Does the pet feel like going for a walk? Is the pet having seizures
or stumbling?


MORE GOOD DAYS THAN BAD
When bad days outnumber good days, quality of life might be
compromised. When a healthy humananimal bond
is no longer possible, the caregiver must be made
aware the end is near. The decision needs to be made if the pet is
suffering. If death comes peacefully
  and painlessly, that is okay

How to comfort a dying dog

Most dogs are deeply bonded to their human family and will find comfort in being close to their family.

  • Offer highly palatable and soft food gently warmed up to make it more palatable. If the dog shows no interest, offer small bites by hand. Some dogs will refuse all food close to death, and should not be forced to eat.
  • Dying dogs are not able to regulate their body temperature, ensure they are in a warm environment.
  • Provide a soft and well-cushioned bed for the dog to sleep on. Add blankets that can easily be washed and puppy pads beneath the dog’s anal region.
  • Stay with your dog and talk quietly. Most dogs will find comfort in having their human family by their side.
  • If the dog has a close bond with other animals in the home, allow them to be present, unless the dog has a highly infectious disease.
  • Keep fresh water available close to the dog’s bed.

Common age-related diseases

As your dog moves into his or her senior years, there is an increased risk of certain diseases. Some may be treatable, but many are ultimately terminal. This is why bi-annual veterinary checkups are so important for middle-aged to senior dogs.

The most common age-related diseases in dogs include:

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease
  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism can be treated in a number of ways, and there is a good outcome. Some cancers can be treated, but others are terminal. Diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease and liver disease can be managed and greatly extend the life expectancy of your dog. This is why bi-annual veterinary checkups are so important for middle-aged to senior dogs.

Euthanising a dog

The term ‘euthanasia’ means ‘peaceful death‘, the process is painless and rapid. Prior to the euthanasia, the dog will be administered a sedative which will calm the dog. The veterinarian will place an intravenous catheter to administer the euthanasia medication which will render the dog unconscious by inducing general anesthesia. Shortly afterwards the dog’s heart will stop.

Grieving the loss of a dog

The loss of a beloved pet affects us all differently. Many of us grapple with not only the loss but also guilt, could they have done more, did they euthanise their dog too soon or wait too long? These feelings can be made worse by feelings of isolation and it is important to be surrounded by people who are sympathetic and understanding of the grief pet owners experience.

The pain does ease, but it takes time. The first few days and weeks can range from encompassing feelings of complete and utter grief, disbelief, shock, loneliness, and anxiety. Over time, these feelings are gradually replaced by acceptance. I still feel sad when I think about my own pets who have passed, but the emotions are not overwhelming as they were in the early days. Sometimes, if a pet has endured a long or painful disease such as cancer, you may feel a sense of relief that it is finally over. All of these emotions are completely normal.

If you are struggling to move on from the loss of a dog, please seek help. There are support groups and specifically trained psychologists and counsellors who specialise in pet grief.

Do not let anybody tell you that it is ‘just a dog‘, our pets are family and the loss of a pet is devastating and should never be downplayed.

When is the right time to get a new dog?

There is no right or wrong time. Some people need to bring a new pet into the family immediately, while some need to fully grieve the loss. Everybody is different. A new dog is not replacing the old one and it is not disrespectful to the dog who has passed to adopt a new family member.  Some will find a new dog comforting and a distraction, but others may need to overcome their grief before considering opening their heart to a new pet.

Frequently asked questions

Do dogs know they are dying?

We still don’t know. The Companion Animal Mourning Project (CAMP) found that two-thirds of dogs exhibited behavoural changes after the death of a canine companion including loss of appetite, increased or decreased vocalisation, and clingy or distant behaviours. What we don’t know is if dogs are aware of their own impending death. Oscar was a resident cat at Steere House Nursing and
Rehabilitation Center in Rhode, who would go and sleep next to patients who would die within two hours of a patient dying. Two possible explanations for Oscar’s behaviour are that he was picking up chemical signals released by the dying patient, or their stillness attracted him to their bedside. 

Cats are known to hide when they are dying, which makes people suspect they know that death is imminent. However, cats are hardwired to hide signs of pain or sickness, which makes them vulnerable to predation. They know they don’t feel well, so find a dark corner to hide and evade detection. Some may die while hiding which makes people assume they had gone away to die.

Dogs are less likely to take themselves off when they are sick or dying, but some may socially withdraw from their family. Each dog is different in how they behave during their final weeks or days.

Is my dog in pain?

Dogs can’t tell us they are in pain, but there are cues that they are experiencing pain. Common signs of pain in dogs include:

  • Panting
  • Decreased social interaction with family members
  • Loss of interest in food
  • Behaviour changes (aggression, growling, social withdrawal)
  • Excessive licking of a particular area of the body
  • Tucked up belly
  • Vocalisation (whimpering, crying, groaning)
  • Mobility issues (reluctance to jump onto a sofa or climb stairs)
  • Restlessness (unable to find a comfortable sleeping position)
  • Shaking or trembling
  • House soiling
Should I stay with my dog during euthanasia?

This is a personal choice. Some people may find it so distressing that the dog will pick up on your feelings which can stress the dog. If you feel you can handle being there for euthanasia, please do. Your dog will find comfort in having you by his or her side.

Is it okay to let my dog die naturally?

No, it is far kinder to give your dog a peaceful death by euthanasia.

How long is the dying process for a dog?

The active dying process can last up to three days.

How can I help my dog pass away peacefully?

The only way to help a dog pass away peacefully is by humane euthanasia. There are no safe or effective drugs available for pet owners to humanely euthanise their own dog.

Do dogs prefer to die alone?

Each dog is different. Most dogs are close to their human family and will find comfort in having them by their side.

Do dogs die with their eyes open?

Yes, dogs die with their eyes open as it requires muscle control to close the eyes.

Do dogs drink a log of water when they are dying?

Dogs with end-stage diabetes or kidney disease will drink a lot of water when they are dying. While I haven’t experienced this with a dog, my cat drank a considerable amount of water leading to his death and would hang over the water bowl.

How can I get my dog to pass at home?

Most veterinary practices offer euthanasia services in the home. This is generally easier on the dog as most dogs aren’t a huge fan of visiting a veterinary practice.

The Last Battle

If it should be that I grow frail and weak
And pain should keep me from my sleep,
Then will you do what must be done,
For this — the last battle — can’t be won.
You will be sad I understand,
But don’t let grief then stay your hand,
For on this day, more than the rest,
Your love and friendship must stand the test.

We have had so many happy years,
You wouldn’t want me to suffer so.
When the time comes, please, let me go.
Take me to where to my needs they’ll tend,
Only, stay with me till the end
And hold me firm and speak to me
Until my eyes no longer see.

I know in time you will agree
It is a kindness you do to me.
Although my tail its last has waved,
From pain and suffering I have been saved.
Don’t grieve that it must be you
Who has to decide this thing to do;
We’ve been so close — we two — these years,
Don’t let your heart hold any tears.

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