Do Dogs Know They Are Dying?

Saying goodbye to a beloved pet is never easy. As your pet nears the end of their life, they may start acting differently or be disinterested in things they normally enjoy. Their actions may have you wondering if your dog knows or realizes that they are dying.

Although dogs may not be cognitively capable of understanding that death is near, they are aware of changes to their physical capabilities and health.

The death of a pet is stressful for both of you, but it can have an added emotional toll if you are unsure of what you should do in a situation like this. Whether your dog knows they are dying or not, this article will help you recognize and understand their end-of-life behavior so that you can best care for and comfort your beloved pet.

Signs Your Dog Knows that They are Dying

Just like humans, every dog is different and reacts differently to changes in their bodies. Some dogs become even more energetic, while others become lethargic and uninterested when experiencing pain or nearing the end of their lives.

Going forward, we will discuss different signs and what your pet might be trying to tell you through them. A local veterinary technician mentioned the following as some of the most common signs that your dog is about to pass away.

  • Not wanting to eat or drink
  • Lethargic
  • Low quality of life and/or pain
  • Changes to sleeping habits
  • Increased stress and/or anxiety
  • Loss of learned behaviors and/or confusion
  • Loss of sight, hearing, and/or smell

Now that we know some common symptoms, let’s dive a bit deeper into each of these different symptoms and what they might mean for your dear furry companion.

Not Wanting to Eat or Drink

A loss of appetite or thirst is a common sign that something is wrong in both people and animals alike. Your dog may not want to eat or drink because of other symptoms that they are experiencing such as vomiting or incontinence.

This incontinence may result in accidents that don’t usually occur after house training. When and if that happens, it is important to be understanding of your older pet’s discomfort and probable embarrassment over the incident.


Becoming lethargic may come as a result of your dog’s poor appetite. This fatigue and disinterest can also come from the pain of aching joints and organs that have to work harder than ever to function properly.

Along with becoming lethargic, your beloved friend may have a lack of desire to do things they once loved, like playing fetch, tug of war, or going for a walk. Their disinterest, however, isn’t a reflection of their disinterest in you, as many pet owners may think, and is just a reflection of their poor health. Dogs nearing the end of their lives may also appear less social or playful with other canines.

Low Quality of Life and/or Pain

Having a low quality of life when nearing the end is not your fault, and is a common and accepted side effect of old age and pains. Being in constant pain, unable to eat without feeling sick, and lacking energy all contribute to having a lower quality of life. Other signs of discomfort such as crying, panting, and pacing may be present as well.

Changes in Sleep Schedule

Another common symptom to end of life discomforts could be a change in your pet’s sleep schedule. They could be sleeping more or less or just be sleeping in different times of the day that aren’t usual habits for your furry friend. Dying is very stressful on the body and can wear out your pet, leading to often and sometimes unexpected naps.

Increased Stress and Anxiety

If your pet is experiencing physical or mental changes near the end of their life, this can be very stressful for them as they may or may not understand what is happening.

As your dog becomes more stressed or anxious, they may want to spend more or less time with you depending on their personal preferences. Their stress and anxiety may manifest themselves in other symptoms such as panting, changes in sleep patterns, loss of appetite, and hyperactivity.

Loss of Learned Behaviors and/or Confusion

Apart from the physical degradation of their bodies, our pets often suffer from mental degradation as well. This means that they may forget learned behaviors and commands even as basic as “sit” or “stay”. Dogs, just like humans tend to deteriorate mentally with age.

Many dogs suffer from common human ailments such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, which may be called “Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome” or “CCDS” by your local veterinary professional.

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome can be treated through medication as well as dietary or environmental changes. Dogs with this syndrome may be less aware of their surroundings and react differently to various stimulants such as food, human behavior, and other dogs.

CCDS is caused, like human dementia, as a result of brain cells dying which negatively affects their cognitive functions.

Loss of Sight, Hearing, and/or Smell

Like any living thing that is aging, there are changes to an older dogs body. Some of the most common changes that are also experienced by aging owners are changes to or the loss of certain senses such as sight, hearing, or smell.

The loss or lessened ability to see is most common in aging pets and manifests itself through stumbling or bumping into things. A decrease in the ability to smell may explain your dog’s lack of appetite, as over 75% of our ability to taste comes from smell alone.

The diminishing sense of hearing may mean that your dog is startled easily or is less receptive to auditory cues.

How Do You Know it is Time to Let Your Dog Go?

Although it may be difficult, there may come a time when it is more humane to let your pet go rather than continue on suffering. This can be accomplished thoughtfully and humanely through euthanasia. The purpose of euthanasia isn’t population control or humane killing, but to save your pet from unnecessary pain or harm that can come from disease or old age.

One of the main concepts stressed in euthanasia techniques is that the animal has a peaceful death, free of fear or distress. This means that euthanasia methods generally cause first a loss of consciousness and then cardiac or respiratory arrest which ultimately is the cause of death.

Looking back to when my childhood dog died, I wish I had been better prepared to experience his loss. I got the news that he died while living in a country over 6,000 miles away from home. I had moved from the United States about six months earlier and had left my beloved dog Gus in the care of my younger brother.

When I left, I knew Gus was getting older but was sure he would be there to greet me when I planned on returning to the states the following year. However, that wasn’t the case. He died because of some intestinal problems that worsened with age.

I was distraught that I couldn’t be there to comfort him and caught myself wondering if he knew he was dying and that I wasn’t there for him in his final moments. However, I knew that he was suffering, so it was time to let him go.

A renowned resource for pet parents and veterinarians alike, the Merck Vet Manual, has worked with veterinarians to develop a scale to help pet owners decide if euthanasia is the right choice for their beloved pet.

HurtDoes your pet experience adequate pain control? Do they have the ability to breathe easily?
HungerDoes your pet express interest in their food? Is your pet able to feed itself, or do they need assistance?
HydrationHow is your pet’s hydration? Can they drink and intake fluids independently?
HygieneDoes your pet suffer from incontinence? Are they able to be groomed regularly without discomfort?
HappinessWhat is your pet’s mental stimulation like? Do they take joy in the things they once loved? Do they seem more anxious or fearful? What are their interactions with family members or other animals like?
MobilityHow does your pet feel about walks? Do they struggle going up the stairs or just getting up in general?
More Good Days Than BadWhat is the ratio of good and bad days for your pet? Do the good days outweigh the bad ones?

While this scale may help you decide whether or not you should euthanize your dog, you should always discuss it with a veterinary professional to ensure it is the best option for both you and your pet. Pet owners and veterinarians never want to unnecessarily end an animal’s life, but oftentimes it is in their best interest and diminishes their suffering.

Along with the safety and emotions of the pet, veterinary professionals are concerned with the emotions and safety of the owner. A responsible pet owner should never feel responsible or guilty about choosing to euthanize their animal, as it is not an easy choice to make. Veterinarians and close friends can be a good resource for those pet owners dealing with grief.

Comforting Your Dog as they Pass

One of the most important things to remember when preparing to lose a pet is to remember that your pet is just as uncomfortable, nervous, and scared as you are, all while being in a good deal of pain. One trusted veterinarian said,

“Understand that when dogs are nearing end of life, their behaviors and personality may change. Be prepared for this… Now is not the time to get upset about accidents in the house or not wanting to go for walks or whatever. Be there for them.”

-Haylee Bergeland, animal health and behavior expert

As your dog gets closer to passing, it is important that you are aware of their needs and allow them to prepare in the way that is most comfortable for them. For example, if your pet becomes more distant in their final days, do not force them to snuggle, go on a walk, or spend time with you.

Although it may be sad and difficult, you need to give your dog the space they need and instead reflect on the good times you have had with your loving pet. Being present and mindful of your pet’s preferences will make a world of difference in their final days.

Along with paying attention to your pet’s cues, here are some general things you can do to ensure that your dog is as comfortable as possible.

  1. Make sure they have a comfortable spot to relax: Creating a comfortable environment for your pet can put them at ease. Ensure that they have blankets or toys with familiar scents on them to may your pet feel at home. Adding an extra pillow or cushion to your dog’s bed along with heat packs can do wonders for an old dog’s arthritic joints. Another way to create a comfortable environment for your pet is to make sure that it is quiet, calm, and relaxing.
  2. Help them move or reposition themselves as needed: As your dog becomes stiffer or struggles more to move, it may be necessary to help them reposition themselves on their bed to ensure that they are always as comfortable as possible.
  3. Buy wet or warm dog food: Wet or warm dog food has a stronger scent than normal dry dog food which may make it more appealing to your pet as their ability to smell and taste decreases with age. If they aren’t able to do other things that they enjoy like playing fetch or going for a walk, they might as well be able to enjoy their food a bit.
  4. Keep them clean and sanitized: Your pet may already feel embarrassed or gross because of other physical discomforts that they are experiencing. As many older pets suffer from incontinence, make sure your pet feels clean and comfortable by placing puppy pads by the doors in case they can’t make it outside in time. A sanitary trim may be useful for longer-haired dogs to maintain a clean bottom. Diaper wipes can also be useful in keeping your pup clean and comfortable.
  5. Speak to them in a gentle voice: Just like us, dogs can be greatly comforted by soothing words. Telling your dog how much you love them will not only make the process easier on you, but on them as well.
  6. Provide medication: Some types of medication may keep your pet from experiencing pain and discomfort in their final days. These can be administered to your pet, but only under the direction of a qualified veterinary professional.

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