How to Recognize a Dying Dog in the Final Moments

Man with dying dog

There's a subtle difference in a dog's behavior when they are past the point of struggling to overcome illness or injury and are about to die. Learning what happens to a dog's body when they die and how to tell when those final moments have arrived can help you prepare and provide your dog with love, comfort, and dignity as they leave this earth.

What Happens When a Dog Dies Naturally

In some cases, an aging or sick dog dies quite suddenly and there's no time to realize it's happening. In other cases, death comes slowly with some signs that are obvious if you understand what to look for. So how long does it take for a dog to die naturally? There is no set timeframe; each dog's situation is unique. According to Leesville Animal Hospital, this can include the following signs:

  • Dogs stop eating and drinking - Their organs are shutting down, so there's no sensation of hunger or thirst.
  • Vomiting and bouts of diarrhea as the digestive system shuts down.
  • Urination without warning - may be bloody.
  • Loss of consciousness - Up until this point, a dog may sleep a lot with brief periods of waking. When they are actively dying, they may lose consciousness altogether just minutes or maybe a few hours before death occurs.
  • Breathing slows - The pause between breaths becomes progressively longer. Near the end, breaths may even come minutes apart after the dog loses consciousness.
  • Heartbeat slows - The heart rate grows ever slower as the muscle loses the ability to function.
  • Muscle spasms and twitching - reflexes and the sensation of pain will decrease.
  • Skin will be dry and appear pale due to dehydration.
"After reading this, I know now why she was acting the way she did. I knew she was going soon. It's helped me to understand better her last few days. She just went to sleep. I was keeping a close watch on her. At one moment, I noticed she was completely still. I put my hand on her and she was shaking. I picked her up and held her in my arms. A few seconds later she was still. She died in my arms." -- Reader comment from October

Dog Dying Process and the Moment of Death

When the struggle is over and a dog dies:

  • They will exhale their final breath. Their body will actually appear to deflate slightly as the lungs empty.
  • Their body will go completely limp.
  • If still open, their eyes will have a blank stare.
  • Their heart completely stops beating.
  • As all tension leaves their muscles, they may release urine or defecate as the muscles that control these bodily functions completely relax.
  • After about 30 minutes of absolutely no signs of life, you can be certain the dog has passed away.
"I took him in my arms, lay with him on his bed, and told him it was OK, to relax, I will always be there with him. His breaths deepened and became more spaced. Gradually, he let go. I felt him completely relax in my arms. He went in peace, surrounded with my love." -- Reader comment from Leah

End of Life Pet Hospice Program

If your pet has significant health issues such as cancer, kidney failure, another terminal illness, or a debilitating medical problem, the veterinarian may talk to you about an end-of-life pet hospice program. End-of-life pet hospice is a term for a personalized care plan to keep a dying pet comfortable. The veterinarian will examine your dog, run tests and develop a home care plan based on your pet's needs. The plan may include a special food such as liquid diets, medications for pain management and scheduled veterinary visits to preserve your ailing pet's life quality and dignity.

Lap of Love, one of the most well-known pet hospice programs, provides a quality of life scale to determine where your dog is in terms of their joys of life, setbacks, and other pertinent information. This is worth reviewing if you are trying to decide what route you should take. These types of forms also help the veterinarian who is responsible for the hospice care with a general idea of what route to take.

Although pet hospice and palliative care are terms used interchangeably, palliative care refers to making sure your dog is as comfortable as possible, and includes:

  • Managing and reducing (or eliminating, if possible) any pain your dog may be experiencing
  • Applying heat therapy to make your dog more comfortable
  • Using diapers for dogs who are incontinent
  • If the dog is still mobile, finding ways to make the home more comfortable and easier to navigate
  • Ensuring the dog passes peacefully when the times comes, whether it's a natural death or one using euthanasia
Kissing dying dog

Are There Any Pet Loss Support Groups?

Pet loss support groups can help you get through the grief following a beloved dog's passing. There are several to choose from, including:

  • Lap of Love Support Group: Lap of Love, in addition to offering hospice services, provides dog owners with free sessions to celebrate their dog's life, discuss any hurdles they are going through, or even just listening if you need someone to talk to. Zoom sessions are offered throughout the week and are led by Lap of Love's Pet Loss Support team.
  • Pet Loss Support Helpline: Tufts University offers a Pet Loss Support Helpline from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m Eastern Standard Time (EST), Monday through Friday with voicemail being open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Grief Support Center at Rainbow's Bridge: Rainbow's Bridge offers a Pet Loss Chat Room, among other services, such as paying tribute to your dog and coping suggestions. The Pet Loss Chat Room provides a more personal way to communicate with those who have experienced the loss of a beloved pet. The room is available 24 hours a day, and there are loving volunteers ready to assist between the hours of 8 p.m. and 12 p.m. EST.

You Don't Have to Go Through This Alone

A hospice plan not only provides a dog with the most comfort possible; it helps an owner, too. Knowing a much-loved dog is going to die can be extremely stressful, and it can be rough trying to make rational decisions about what is best for your pet. Having a hospice plan and a vet to lean on for advice will guide you through to the end. Think of it as part of your support program during a very difficult time.

Was this page useful?
Related & Popular
How to Recognize a Dying Dog in the Final Moments