How To Comfort A Dying Dog


Dog Image by Robert Hell

When our beloved fairy friends are dying we want to do everything we can to make them comfortable. After all, they are part of our family. 

Pancho’s deterioration was quick and without warning. One day he was a happy, energetic 3-year-old dog, the next he was losing balance, throwing up, and lethargic. Even though we did not know he was dying; we knew he needed us, we knew he was in discomfort. We felt so helpless in the midst of what was happening. we could not help him regain balance or with the vomiting; the vets were doing that, but we could try and make him as comfortable as we could. we could make him feel safe and cared for.  

As death approaches, your role is to be present, provide comfort, and reassure your beloved furry friend with soothing words and actions that can help maintain their comfort.

How to comfort a dying dog?

  • Be patient and calm
  • Provide a quiet environment
  • Speak in comforting tones
  • Give them a comfortable bed to sleep in
  • Keep fresh water available
  • Give their favorite foods if they can eat
  • Provide pain management pills only if the vet has prescribed this
  • Give them loads of hugs and pets
  • Stay Close to Them
  • Keep them warm  

Below we describe in more detail each of the steps to make your fairy friend comfortable, common signs to look for when a dog is dying and the process they will undergo until they pass.

8 Steps To Comfort A Dying Dog

Be Patient And Calm

Older dogs or sick dogs may lose control of their bowels or will throw up wherever they are. 

Remember, this is not their fault and they are not being lazy. 

So, if you find that your dog has defecated, urinated or throw up in your carpet; move them gently out of the way, reassured them that everything is ok with a kiss or a gentle pet, and proceed to clean without a fuss.

Shouting at them or showing frustration will only make them feel worse. Dogs are very sensitive to your emotions, so it can be distressing to your dog if you show anger or frustration on a situation they have no control over. 

If you are finding that their loss of bowel control is proving too much for you, consider having them wear pet diapers. If the throwing up is also proving too much for you, why not put some towels or waterproof pet pads around them.

Provide A Quiet Environment 

During the last hours of your pet’s life, they may be experiencing pain, confusion and possibly anguishment. 

To avoid them feeling distressed, anxious or avoid them lashing to anyone, carefully monitor interactions with other pets and children. Ensure the interactions are gentle and calm.

Perhaps avoid introducing your pet to new places or new people as this will overstimulate them and drain them of the little energy they may have. 

Loud and chaotic environments will stress your dog as they feel they need to keep their guard up. Remember, in the wild if they show vulnerability they will be eating; so instincts will be high at a time when your dog is unwell and on their last hours.

Give your dog a quiet and calm environment away from chaos, loud noises, and overstimulation. Instead, why not play soothing music or a nature soundtrack where he/she can hear birds chirping away. 

Speak In Comforting Tones

Dogs do not understand phrases. When we talk to them, they simply associate words with commands like seat, walkies, toilet or treat, everything else sounds like blah, blah, blah to them. 

However, dogs are susceptible to the tone and volume of our voices. These (tone and volume) project pleasure, pride, love, disappointment, concern, sadness, caution and correction.

So, when your furry friend is dying use a soft, reassuring, and soothing tone (low volume, high pitch). These tones will express affection and caring. 

Think of how you talk to a baby or kid when they are hurt, or in distress and you are trying to comfort them. Use the same tone for your furry friend and you’ll have this tone down to the note. 

Give Them Affection 

Most dogs love physical contact (hugs and pets) as this helps them feel comfortable, secure, reassured and part of their pack. However too much of it, and it can use up much of their energy, especially if they are unwell. 

Therefore, if your dog is unwell, make sure the petting and hugs are measured and not overdone. Also ensure they are gentle, especially if their condition involves severe physical pain. 

Use long, slow strokes, and stay away from any painful areas. If you sense that your pet is becoming stressed, or follows your hand with his/her muzzle, or move away from your hand, back off and allow them to rest.

Provide Them With A Comfortable Sleeping Spot

During the final days/hours of your pet’s life, they will be lethargic, sleep more and seek solitude. This is all in an attempt to preserve the little energy they may have.

To help them feel comfortable, ensure the area they are using to rest is clean, dry, and draught-free.

Dying dogs may feel colder than healthy dogs, so ensure you have a couple of blankets you can put on them to keep them warm. Maybe even consider having a heater in the area to keep the room temperature at 65 – 66 0F (18-19 0C) or a heating pad under their bed to keep them warm at all times. 

Dogs with limited mobility can develop pressure sores. To avoid this from becoming painful, provide plenty of cushioning in their sleeping spot.

Avoid Dehydration

As your pet’s life is coming to an end, they will not want to eat and/or drink. Although difficult to see and accept, it is normal. Their bodies are shutting down. They no longer have the sensation of hunger or thirst.

Food is not essential for your pet. They can go for several days without eating and that is ok. However, dehydration may make them feel uncomfortable and can be a cause for a painful death.

To check if your pet is dehydrated gently lift a bit of skin at the back of their neck if it stays up like a tent and sort of stuck together, he/she is dehydrated. If on the other hand, the skin snaps right back, your pet is hydrated. This test may be difficult in old dogs, as they lose elasticity, in dogs that are overweight, and in wrinkly dogs, such as Bulldogs or Neapolitan Mastiffs.

So, if you try the “skin tent test”, and you are still unsure try the “capillary refill test”. Press your finger gently against your dog’s gums and then remove your finger. If the area you press is white for a second, but it returns to its normal pink color almost immediately, your pet is well-hydrated. If on the other hand, the gums take several seconds to return to its original pink color, your pet is likely dehydrated. 

Other symptoms of dehydration include: 

  • panting, 
  • excessive drooling, 
  • sticky and dry gums, 
  • Thick saliva, and 
  • sunken eyes.

Preventing dehydration on an ill pet or an animal that is refusing to eat or drink may be hard. Some suggestions to try before taking them to the vets are:

  • Offer them foods with high moisture content.
  • Entice your dog to drink water by adding bone broth to their water, or by giving them ice cubes to chew on. 
  • If your dog is not vomiting, you can try giving them an electrolyte-enhanced fluid-like Pedialyte. It’s best to check with your veterinarian for dosage recommendations.

If your pet becomes moderate to severely dehydrated, take them to your veterinarian straight away. They may need to be hospitalized and be given intravenous (IV) fluids and an electrolyte solution over 24 to 48 hours, depending on the level of dehydration.

Manage Pain

Pain management is crucial during those final days to make your fairy friend feel comfortable. The problem here is that animals do not often vocalize pain, instead they hide it, and hide it well.

For animals showing pain is a sign of weakness. In the wild, it will advertise that they are a simple meal, and with so much vulnerability their instincts will be in high alert.

Sometimes an animal will continue to eat or drink in spite of being in pain. 

Some signs that will tell you that your fairy friend is in pain are:

  • panting or gasping for air,
  • lethargic, 
  • exhibiting behavioral changes, 
  • hiding, 
  • moving around less, and/or
  • rapid breathing and pulse

The above signs coupled with the pain scale chart are great tools to help you assess your furry friend’s pain. 

If your assessment shows that their pain is somewhere between 3 and 4 in the pain scale, and/or you see any of the above signs; speak with your veterinarian straight away, do not wait to monitor them. Your vet will help you acquire the necessary pain relief medications to make your furry friend comfortable. 

Stay Close To Them

Some dogs may seek comfort and warmth from their pack leader at a time where they feel vulnerable. Some other dogs may seek solitude as they attempt to preserve energy.

Whatever your dog seeks, whether it is your companionship or solitude, ensure you respect their wishes.

However, remain close to them at all times and regularly check upon them. Dying dogs may not have the energy to go to the toilet by themselves, and may have to lie in a urinated blanket potentially getting urine burn on their skin. 

To prevent this discomfort, change their bedding often and take them outside to the toilet regularly. 

Other options to prevent your dog have to lie on a urinated bed include puppy pads, which are highly absorbent, or Vetbed. The latter is an artificial sheepskin that absorbs moisture away from your furry friend and has the advantage that it is very soft, which makes for a comfortable bed. 

What Are The Signs That Your Dog Is Dying

Each dog’s journey to death is unique and varies depending on whether the dog is dying from old age or illness. The signs that your dog is going to pass away also vary from illness to illness.

Although the signs that your dog is dying can vary from dog to dog, illness to illness; there are similar patterns of behavior that may mean the end is close. 

Signs that will require urgent attention and a visit to the vets right away:

  • Breathing difficulties, or change in breathing patterns (their breathing may become shallower and the pause between breaths becomes progressively longer)
  • Discharge from the eyes or nose
  • Seizures
  • Abnormal vocalization (whining or crying)
  • Lack of Coordination. 
  • Excessive vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Bloating of the abdomen
  • Blood in the urine or stool

Other less severe signs of illness that should be checked by a veterinarian within 24 to 48 hours are:

  • Loss of Interest in things and people around them
  • Extreme Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Appetite change or loss of appetite
  • Hiding
  • Increased shedding or bald patches
  • Excessive scratching or licking of the body
  • Foul odor coming from the mouth, ears or skin
  • Limping
  • Reluctance or difficulty in getting up or going up and downstairs
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control
  • Straining or inability to urinate or defecate

If you know the illness your dog has and the vet has examined them, it may be a matter of monitoring their quality of life.

Our article when to put a dog down will provide you with a checklist of the activities that you should monitor, to help you conclude when the end has arrived. By monitoring these activities you will ensure that your dog has a comfortable end of life instead of prolonging a painful death.

How Long Does The Transition Stage Of Dying Last?

While researching the answer to this question I was surprised to understand that for the most part there are two phases to dying: the pre-active stage and the active stage.

On average, the pre-active phase of dying may last approximately two weeks, while the active phase lasts on average three days.

I am using the words “on average” because there are often exceptions to the rule. 

In our case, our healthy young dog went from being an enthusiastic, energetic healthy dog, to a dog going through the active phase of dying in a matter of 2 days.

Is It Time To Euthanize My Dog?

The time to euthanize your dog comes when their quality of life has deteriorated so much that they are no longer enjoying life.

Sometimes this is obvious as their pain is acute or their minds are completely gone. In our case, we knew Pancho had to be put down when he suffered a seizure and went into a coma state.

However, sometimes the symptoms are more gradual and over a period of time. If this is your case; monitoring their quality of life will help you and your veterinarian determine when the time has come.

Is My Dog Dying Or Just Sick?

This is a hard one, especially if the symptoms come from nowhere. 

Above we mentioned a few symptoms that may occur when our furry friends are getting ready to cross the rainbow. 

Some of those symptoms may be: breathing difficulties, or change in breathing patterns, lack of appetite or thirst, seizures, abnormal vocalization, hiding behavior and more (see “What Are The Signs That Your Dog Is Dying” section above for more symptoms).

The more of the above symptoms your dog shows at the same time, the more likely it is that your dog is dying. If your dog is younger and shows a few of these symptoms, talk to your veterinarian, as your dog may be sick but not dying.

What Happens To A Dog’s Body When It Dies

Firstly ensure your dog is indeed death. This is especially important if your dog dies suddenly at home. 

To do this, place your hand on your dog’s left side behind the front leg, or inside of the top of your dog’s hind leg to check for a heartbeat. If your dog still has a heartbeat you can try and perform CPR while you contact your veterinarian. 

If however, you cannot feel a heartbeat then it is likely your dog is gone.

Even if you cannot feel your friend’s heartbeat, do not attempt to burry them until a veterinarian has confirmed that they are indeed gone.

Please be aware that sometimes when a pet dies, their body may show signs of life. This may be:

  • Twitching. This occurs as a result of natural nerve spasms after death.
  • The release of air from the mouth when moved.
  • The release of bodily fluids and gas.

Although disturbing, it is all-natural and your pet is not in pain or in distress, nor a life when or if this happens.

Your dog’s body will also experience rigor mortis; the stiffening of joints after death. This usually will begin to set around three to four hours after death.

If you are planning to bury your pet in your backyard, it is best to gently move your pet into a curled position (as if it were sleeping) or even place them in a biodegradable casket, before rigor mortis sets. Otherwise, your pet’s body will stiffen and it can make the burial more labor-intensive if your pet is lying on their side.

Please note that not all states in the USA allow home burial. Our Article “Is It Legal To Bury Pets In Backyard? State By State Laws” will provide you with a guide on the specific rule on your state. 

Conclusion

If your beloved furry friend is approaching the end, he/she will need your comfort, understanding, and patience to reach the rainbow. 

Although as the end of life approaches may be distressing for you and your pet, providing some home physical comforts may give you some heart comforts when the time comes.

Just remember, if you experience a pet loss and are struggling with your pain, you are not alone; reach out for help. Talk to a therapist, a friend, a family member, or contact the ASPCA in their Pet Loss Hotline (1-877-474-3310) to talk to a grief counselor.

Carolina

I'm Carolina and created this blog, to provide practical advice and emotional comfort for those dealing with pet loss.

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