Warning Signs a Dog Is Dying

Kelly Roper
Little girl holding her dog

It is relatively rare for a dog to pass away suddenly and without warning. It's much more likely there will be some signs your dog is dying, especially if he has been unwell for a while. Whether you choose to let a pet die in peace at home or have him humanely euthanized, it's helpful to be aware of the signs that will help you understand how to tell if your dog is dying.

8 Signs a Dog Is Dying

If your dog has a terminal illness, you may need to care for him at home during his final days. Knowing how dogs act before they die can be helpful. There are some common signs that a dying dog is in its final decline. Just keep in mind that each dog experiences dying differently, and some dogs may not exhibit every symptom listed. Speak to your vet about how to know if your dog is dying and when those signs might start to show as a result of his condition.

1. Lack of Coordination

A dying dog becomes very unsteady on his feet and has difficulty moving from one point to another. This might be due to physical weakness, impaired brain function or even a combination of the two. In a dying dog, weakness is most likely due to not eating, severe diarrhea or blood loss. However, as PetMD explains, a dog that suddenly becomes uncoordinated may have a treatable condition such as an ear infection, so be sure to seek veterinary attention if in doubt.

2. Extreme Fatigue

A vomiting dog will have less energy and be less active even if the condition is not serious. However, when a dog is actively dying, he will show signs of extreme fatigue. He will most likely lie in one spot without attempting to get up anymore, and he may no longer even have the strength to lift his head. Again, this tends to be a slow decline and may be due to anemia, poor circulation or lack of energy. If his gums go white instead of pink, this can indicate anemia, which is a serious sign. Likewise, if his gums are pink but when pressed with a finger go white and stay white for several seconds, this is a sign of circulatory collapse which is a precursor to death.

3. Complete Loss of Appetite

The dog shows practically no interest in food or water. When he does eat, he often cannot keep food down. As death draws closer, he refuses to eat anything at all. Again, be aware that a dog that feels unwell may not want to eat, so interpret his lack of appetite as part of the bigger picture and seek veterinary attention where appropriate.

4. Vomiting

Vomiting is a general sign that can occur for many reasons from motion sickness to an infection or virus, or a more serious decline. For the dog with a terminal diagnosis, when the digestive system begins shutting down, undigested food in the stomach can make the dog feel nauseated. He may vomit to purge the contents of his stomach. Starting to vomit is a serious complication, especially as he may not keep water down and become dehydrated. However, for the dog that has been relatively well and suddenly starts to be sick, there may be options to make him more comfortable and buy him more time.

5. Incontinence

A dying dog progressively loses control over bodily functions as he may be too weak to get up and have accidents where he lies. Alternatively, as his body weakens, he loses control of his sphincter muscle as well as the muscles that control his bladder. Good nursing is crucial so that the dog doesn't develop sores secondary to urine or feces in prolonged contact with the skin.

6. No Interest in Surroundings

Most dogs begin to withdraw into themselves as they draw closer to death. They no longer respond to what's going on around them, and they may even cease to respond to their favorite people as their bodies begin shutting down.

7. Twitching

The dog may twitch or shake at times. This is typically an involuntary response, but the dog may become chilled as his body temperature begins to drop. It may help to make the dog more comfortable by putting him on a heating pad or providing extra warmth.

8. Worsening of His Terminal Illness

If your dog has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, such as severe heart failure, kidney failure, or cancer, then be alert for a deterioration in his condition. For example, if the dog has heart failure then his breathing may become far more labored and his belly may swell.

Facing the End With Your Pet

Many of the signs listed here are quite general and, in isolation, can simply be signs your dog might be sick. If you are undecided whether the end is close, look at the bigger picture. An older dog with a terminal diagnosis that has pale gums and not eaten for days is more likely to be dying than a fit young dog with no pre-existing medical conditions. On the whole, the more of the signs listed above that are present, the more serious the outlook. Your best source of advice is the vet familiar with your dog's case, who can offer advice about whether there are any treatment options that would make him more comfortable.

Ways to Comfort Your Dying Dog

If you choose to let your pet pass away at home, there are a few things you can do to make his last hours on earth more comfortable.

  • Provide a warm and quiet place for your dog to rest comfortably. Carefully monitor interactions with other pets and children who may not understand the dog's condition.
  • You can try offering your dog food and water if he's willing to take it, but don't try to force it on him. Dogs know when eating is no longer any use to them.
  • Pet your dog softly and talk to him. Reassure him that everything is OK and that you love him. Even though it is difficult, try to be calm and soothing to your pet. He can pick up on your emotions.
  • Place waterproof pet pads close to or beneath your dog if he cannot go outside. You can also have him wear pet diapers if that's easier.
  • Ensure the dog is not suffering or in pain.

Saying Goodbye to Your Dog

You've done all you can for your pet, and now the moment has come to truly say goodbye. It can be overwhelming, so it's best to focus on taking things in stages.

Don't Rush If You Don't Have To

Unless your pet is in pain, take your time saying goodbye in person whether you're at home or at the vet clinic. Really focus on your dog and talk to him. This is your moment to tell him how much he has meant to your life, so try to say everything now that you'll only wish you had said once he's gone. Your dog may not understand every word, but he'll understand your tone, and your words will do you some good too. They are the beginning point of gaining some closure.

Treat Your Dog One Last Time

Take this last opportunity to give your dog something she has always loved. If you think she's still capable of enjoying it, give her a treat that was usually forbidden to her like a small bite of chicken or a French fry. Just a taste of her favorite food will give her an extra moment of joy that comes straight from your hands, and you can make the food at home or stop at a drive-thru on your way to the clinic.

The treat doesn't have to be food; do something for your pet that used to make her happy. For example:

  • If your dog loved to sit in the backyard, wrap her in a blanket and take her outside one last time. You can let her pass away there if that's your plan, or you can just spend some time cherishing her until you're ready to head to the clinic.
  • If she has a favorite stuffed toy, make sure she has it with her.
  • If she has a canine pal, try to let them spend a few moments together before the end comes.

Be Present If at All Possible

Whether you're allowing your pet to pass away at home or taking him to the clinic, being with your dog in the last moments of his life will certainly be heartbreaking for you. However, it will be far more comforting for him to pass with you beside him than in the company of strangers. Pet him, tell him it's alright to go, and assure him you'll meet again one day.

Save Something to Remember Your Dog By

Having a memento from your dog can also help you say goodbye. In the immediate moments after your dog passes, gather a few keepsakes so you don't regret missing the opportunity later. For example:

  • Collect some of her fur and put it in a special container.
  • Take a print of one of her paws. The author's daughter keeps a canvas and uses a little acrylic paint to add one print from each pet that passes away. Taking the print is very easy if you wait until this point to do it.
  • Remove your dog's collar and create a shadow box featuring it along with some photos and his favorite toy.

Hold a Small Memorial Service

A memorial service serves the same purpose for pets as it does for people; it's a final and formal way to say goodbye. It's also an important part of the grieving process and will help you on your journey to achieving closure even though you will continue grieving for your pet for some time to come.

The service doesn't have to be a big event. It can include just you and your family. As long as you do something that's meaningful to all of you, your memorial will have served its purpose.

  • You might all take turns sharing your favorite stories about your dog.
  • You could add a beautiful marker to your yard to commemorate your pet and then read a letter or a poem to your dog which you've composed yourself.
  • Some people like to plant a tree, a shrub, or some perennial flowers in remembrance and then say a prayer. Flower bulbs are especially nice for this purpose because they can be lifted and taken with you if you move.
  • You could have a portrait painted using your dog's best photo and hold your ceremony as you put it in its permanent spot.
  • If you opt for cremation, you could bury your pet in her favorite part of your yard. Alternatively, you could transfer your pet's ashes into a memorial urn or a box you've decorated just for her.

Care Matters

When the end is close, your care and attention can make your pet's passing a little easier. He will still appreciate knowing how much you love him even if he's past the point of responding to you, and you can take comfort in the fact that you were there for him when he needed you most.

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Warning Signs a Dog Is Dying