As pets and companions, dogs play a very special role in the lives of humans. It can be very difficult to see our dogs slowing down and experiencing health problems as they age; in some cases, too, it may be hard to really know when it is time to say goodbye to our canine pals.
If you are aware of the signs of worsening health in a dog with preexisting conditions, you may feel more prepared to handle those developments if or when they appear. Likewise, if you know some of the signs and symptoms that dogs experience as they age, you may find it easier to discern when it is time to explore end of life care for your pup.
A Word of Caution
If you are concerned about your dog’s health, the best thing to do is take them to the veterinarian. Although the signs mentioned in this article can be indicative of impending death, these symptoms may also be related to a health problem that a vet could diagnose and treat.
In some cases, a dog experiencing symptoms associated with dying may simply be sick. Even old dogs experiencing serious symptoms may be able to receive life-sustaining care; for this reason, it is important to remain in contact with your vet.
Signs of Serious Health Problems
Certain frightening symptoms that dogs experience may indicate that something is seriously wrong. In some cases, these may be signs of imminent death, while in others they may just be very strong warnings that the dog needs immediate help.
For instance, when a dog has been poisoned, it may exhibit symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, foaming at the mouth, heavy panting, or collapse. In any of these cases, it is a good idea to consult your vet, an emergency animal hospital, or a poison control helpline. Although they can be very serious, these symptoms do not necessarily mean that the poisoned dog will die—depending on what the dog was exposed to, the condition may be treatable.
Other symptoms that may indicate that your dog has a very serious health problem include tumors and mysterious lumps, bumps, and sores. If your dog is experiencing any of these, it would be a very good idea to have them examined by a vet in order to find out if these are being caused by a serious health problem like cancer or an autoimmune disease.
If your dog is coughing and gagging a lot, getting more tired on walks, or having difficulty breathing, they may be showing symptoms of heart disease. Other indicators are bloating or swelling of their belly, weakness or collapse, and sudden onset of back leg weakness. Again, it is imperative that you have your dog examined by a vet to find the cause of these symptoms rather than chalking it up to “old age” or impending death.
Some life-threatening problems may be found through routine bloodwork during a veterinary visit. Unfortunately, some diseases and serious health issues may not initially present with obvious symptoms. Thankfully, when caught at an early phase, many serious canine health problems are curable, or, at worst, manageable.
It is important to be aware of symptoms that may indicate the worsening of a preexisting health problem. For instance, if your dog has kidney disease, problems with voiding waste such as excessive urination or constipation may be signals that the disease is worsening, while in a healthy dog, these symptoms may mean something else.
It is important that you be familiar with common signs and symptoms associated with your dog’s health problems so that you can better understand your dog’s disease course.
Signs an Old Dog Is Dying Soon
Although signs of death depend on many factors—including whether or not a dog has a preexisting condition contributing to their decline—there are certain changes and symptoms that may be indicative of an older dog’s body shutting down.
As mentioned before, if you believe your dog may be dying, make sure you have had your dog examined by their vet to ensure that the cause is not something that is easily treatable. Continue to remain in contact with the vet as changes occur.
Here are some symptoms to look out for, many of which are interrelated:
Changes in Eating or Drinking.
Changes in eating and drinking habits, including loss of appetite, may be caused by a variety of issues aging dogs face, including nausea and exhaustion. This may also be connected to other health problems affecting the internal organs and digestive system.
In addition to changes to a dog’s diet or water intake—sometimes due to these changes—the dog may also experience other problems related to eating and drinking such as vomiting or diarrhea.
If you have a dog who is particularly food driven who suddenly loses interest in food, this may be a serious warning sign. Keep in mind, however, that gastrointestinal issues are common and can be caused by numerous conditions unrelated to a dog’s body shutting down as part of the dying process.
If a dog stops drinking for more than 24 hours, it is a serious situation as they can’t live for more than 2-3 days without water. Consult with your vet immediately in this situation.
Sudden weight loss is never a good sign in any dog. It can be an indication of serious issues including cancer, thyroid dysfunction, hormonal issues.
And as mentioned above, sudden weight loss can be the result of a loss of appetite, which often accompanies end of life.
Continuous Disinterest or Tiredness.
It is unfortunately true that every human and animal that ages will “slow down” as they get older. The tiredness and disinterest aging dogs experience may also appear akin to depression, and it may be difficult to tell whether the dog is lacking the energy or the desire to do things; sometimes, both are true.
The dog may appear to have undergone a change of character from alert and aware to apathetic or lethargic. Disinterest may also be expressed as a decline in grooming behaviors, though this may be related to a general sense of exhaustion.
Decreased Coordination or Mobility.
In addition to decreasing energy and interest, aging dogs may experience a decline in their coordination and/or decrease in mobility. This may be related to physiological problems such as bad hips or joints, though it may also be related to low energy levels.
Aging dogs may also experience seizures or other neurological problems that can affect their coordination or mobility. This can be very alarming, especially if the dog has never had a seizure before; in many cases, though, the seizure is not painful, though it may cause the dog to feel panicked or confused.
Though difficulty breathing may be associated with medical conditions that affect the lungs, slowed or uneven breathing may also be a sign of imminent death. When this is the case, there may also be a change in heart rate.
Dogs experiencing lung problems or just a general difficulty with breathing may also have less desire to move around.
Dogs often breath fast in their sleep, which can be caused by a number of issues, including pain.
Discomfort or Pain.
Most dogs do not show signs of pain until they are very unwell, especially when the source of discomfort is relatively minor. When dogs are in a great deal or pain or close to death, they may more openly express discomfort.
Some signs that a dog is in pain include unprovoked aggression or irritability, restlessness, hiding or avoiding others, excessive panting, and shaking or trembling. Muscle spasms and twitching are also common when a dog is in pain. A dog who is in pain may also appear disinterested or may lose mobility.
It is important to manage your dog’s pain; providing comfort to your aging dog is the best gift you can give them.
Dogs who are nearing the end of their lives may lose the ability to control their bowels or bladders. In some cases, the dog is able to control their bodily functions but has lost mobility and may “do their business” inside simply because they cannot get outside.
If your dog is largely immobile, it may be a good idea to put a pee pad underneath them so that you do not have to try to get them outside when they need to use the bathroom. This may also be a good idea to do if your dog is near death, because dogs may also experience incontinence when they pass.
Urinary incontinence has a wide range of severity, from occasional accidents to complete loss of bladder function. When it quickly becomes severe in your aging dog, it can sometimes be an indication of impending death.
Avoiding Others or Seeking Out Comfort.
Dogs are very smart creatures, and as such, can tell when something is going wrong. When they are very unwell, they may go off by themselves and become socially detached. It is not uncommon for a dying dog to hide in the house.
Alternatively, though, they may seek out comfort from their owners and become very clingy and needy (even more than usual in a normally clingy dog). The latter especially is typically a sign that the end is very close.
Changes in Gum Color and Lowered Body Temperature
As a dog’s body breaks down and nears death, the gums often become pale, losing their normal reddish color. If you press on your dogs gum and release, the color should return to the spot where you pressed. If it doesn’t and remains pale, or the entire gums are pale, it is likely that their circulation is very poor and their heart is not pumping adequate blood through the body.
Dogs who are very close to death usually have a lower body temperature than normal, and their blood pressure drops as well.
The “Rally” or “Last Hurrah”
If you’ve ever experienced the death of a loved one from a terminal illness, you may be familiar with the phenomenon of the “rally”, also known as a “last hurrah”. Dying people who haven’t walked or talked in days or weeks are suddenly able to, or are lively and animated after having been lethargic for long periods. Dogs can also experience this last hurrah before dying.
The “rally” occurs when a dog is in the final days nearing death, and in the midst of their steady decline, they have a short period where they have a sudden, often remarkable, turn for the better in their health. Just like people who experience this “last hurrah” in their final days, they may suddenly be able to walk when they haven’t been able to for some time, get full of energy and act playful, vocalize, or exhibit other behaviors that seemed impossible for them the day before.
The last hurrah can be confusing for the dog owner, as it is easy to believe that the dog has suddenly gotten better and is recovering from whatever illness has been plaguing them. Unfortunately, this change in fortunes only lasts anywhere from a couple of hours to a day before the dog regresses to its former state.
The best way to deal with the rally is to savor and enjoy this behavior, but keep in mind that it is more than likely going to be very short-lived and refrain from getting your hopes up high that is may be more long term. There are probably rare cases where the behavior indicates a true recovery from an actual illness, but the majority of the time it only lasts for several hours.
Palliative Care, Hospice, and Euthanasia
Whether dogs are facing very serious health problems or naturally nearing the end of their lives due to old age, there are many ways owners can minimize the suffering of their beloved pets and maximize their time together before saying goodbye.
Just like there are for humans, there are palliative and hospice care options available for dogs who are very seriously ill or very old and who would benefit from these layers of support.
Palliative care focuses on helping very sick dogs manage their symptoms so they are not in pain. It is generally pursued when an owner is not yet ready for their dog to be euthanized. Like hospice, symptom management is key, but unlike hospice, owners can still pursue further treatment of the dog’s specific illness.
On the other hand, hospice care is utilized when a dog has a terminal illness and a resulting short life expectancy, and focuses on keeping the dog as comfortable as possible throughout that time. While your dog is on hospice, the veterinarian providing care will focus on your dog’s quality of life over curative measures.
Hospice care for dogs may last until the dog naturally dies, or until the owner chooses euthanasia. After a point, it is also possible that the vet providing care would suggest euthanasia if the dog was suffering greatly.
On that note, even though it can be an incredibly difficult decision, in many circumstances choosing to euthanize a suffering pet may be the most compassionate, humane option. Vets ensure that your pup will not feel pain throughout the process. Additionally, in many cases you may even be able to have your dog euthanized at home to help maximize their comfort.
In addition to watching for symptoms of pain and other indicators of decline, a good metric to use to measure how your dog is doing is comparing their number of “good days” versus “bad days.” If your dog regularly has more bad days, it may be time to let your vet know and get their opinion on next steps. Additionally, a good reference guide to consult when questioning whether it is time to say goodbye to your dog is the Quality-of-Life assessment from Lap of Love.
We all want our dogs to be happy and healthy, and when they are ill, it can sometimes be difficult to know how to best help them. By monitoring how your dog is doing and watching for signs that they are in pain or are otherwise unwell, you can feel more empowered to know when to seek out a vet’s opinion.
Recognizing the signs a dog is dying soon is one thing; processing the reality of losing your pet is a whole other step. Be sure to give yourself plenty of self-care in addition to caring for your dog. Both you and your dogs have needs in this process.
When the time comes to say goodbye, it won’t be easy—in fact, it may be the hardest part of having pets. That said, by looking out for your dog and providing them with comfort, assurance, and love, you can give them back some of the unconditional love they give you.
Frequently Asked Questions
When a Dog is Dying, How Long Does it Take?
There is no set time range for how long it takes a dog to die. Every dog is different, and the manner in which their bodies break down can vary greatly among dogs, even if the disease causing death is the same. Some dogs can appear to be on the verge of death for weeks or days, while others can pass within hours after the first signs of dying are observed.
The actual death of a dog occurs quite quickly. Their breathing will slow down considerably, and then perhaps they’ll have a short burst of rapid breaths before stopping. All tension leaves their body and they slump. Their bladder and bowels may empty involuntarily as the muscles that control these functions stop working. A lack of breath and pulse indicates the dog has passed away.
When a Dog Stops Eating, How Long Before They Die?
Dogs can generally live up to five days without food, but that’s when the dog is otherwise healthy and drinking water. A sick or dying dog will usually not last more than 2-3 days without eating, and often shorter if they are not drinking.
When a dying dog stops eating, you can usually be fairly certain that the dog will die within the next couple of days. Of course, there are exceptions, but they are not the norm.