What are the signs a dog is dying?

Elderly black dog lying on couch
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If your canine companion is getting quite elderly, you might be worried about spotting the signs a dog is dying. Saying goodbye to your beloved pup is likely one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do and while we all want to have as much time with our fur friends as possible, it’s also important to know when to let them go.

In this article, we'll find out the signs that your dog could be dying, and let you know how you can help. However, it's worth remembering that, in some cases, euthanasia is a kinder option than waiting for your pup to die naturally, especially if they’re in uncontrollable pain. 

For more information, check out our guides to signs that your dog is in pain (opens in new tab) and signs that your dog is getting old (opens in new tab) or read on to find out the most common signs a dog is dying.

Signs a dog is dying 

Not every dog will show the same signs when their life is nearing its end. The signs that they show will vary depending on the health issues that they have. If you spot the following signs in your older dog, they may be near the end of life:

Poor appetite

Every dog is different, some dogs maintain a good appetite until they are very poorly, while others can be very fussy even when they're well. However, it's common for a dog's appetite to disappear completely in the days before they pass away.

Not moving

Many older dogs struggle with their mobility, but if your dog is unable to even potter around, and won’t even raise their head or wag their tail, this could sadly be a sign that they are dying. 

Not drinking

This sign is a little variable, in that dogs with certain health conditions like kidney disease, liver disease, or diabetes are likely to drink excessively. However, in the hours before death, it's unusual that a dog would take a drink. 

Breathing distress

Many dogs show changes in their breathing before they pass away. Sometimes, this means panting or gasping, other times it means shallower breathing than normal. 

Cold extremities

Before death, a dog’s heart and circulation may start to struggle. This could mean that their extremities like their paws and lips feel cold to the touch. 

Pale gums

Again, due to poor circulation, a dog's gums may become pale pink, grey, or purple before they pass away. They might also feel dry or tacky if your dog is dehydrated.

Unresponsive

If your dog doesn’t respond to you when you call their name or stroke them, it doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. If they are dying, they may be feeling weak, confused, or in pain, and they might not have the energy to react to you. This sign could make it feel like they’ve given up, and it’s time to say goodbye.

Vocalising

Many dogs will make unusual vocalisations if they are dying. If they are in pain, distressed, or disorientated, they might whine, howl, or yelp. This can be distressing to hear, but your familiar presence will offer your dog some comfort.

Stages of a dying dog

Pug being checked by vet

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Not all dogs will show the same signs in the last months of their life, but depending on their health you might notice some of the following signs:

Months before

In the months before your dog dies, you might notice that they lose a lot of weight. It might even seem like no matter how much you feed them they still lose weight, or perhaps they're suddenly not very interested in food. You might also notice changes in their drinking habits, especially if their kidneys or liver are not working as well as they used to. If your dog is old, you'll probably notice them slowing down on walks or not wanting to walk much anymore. This could be due to sore joints, but it might also be due to heart or lung problems.

Days before

In the days before your dog passes away, they might stop eating and drinking altogether. They might be reluctant or unable to stand and may pass urine and faeces where they lie. It may seem that they will soon die, however, death is very unpredictable and your dog may suffer for an extended time rather than passing away quickly and peacefully.

Minutes before

In the moments before your dog’s last breaths, you might notice their breathing become more rapid or erratic. They may suddenly seem restless or disorientated and might cry out. You might notice that they stretch their legs out, arch their back or tilt their head up. Their pupils will become fixed and dilated as they pass. 

After death

After your dog has passed away, their muscles may twitch for a little while. They might also take some gasping breaths, which is an after-death reflex. After a few hours, rigour mortis will set in and their body will become stiff, although this won’t be permanent.

How to help a dying dog

Sick dog lying on the couch

(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you think your dog might be dying, you should try to contact a veterinarian urgently. Although it seems like a blessing if your dog dies naturally, in reality, it can cause your pet unnecessary pain and suffering.

When to consider euthanasia

Euthanasia is often the kinder option if your pet is old or unwell. It’s best to consider how their recent quality of life has been, by assessing their appetite, mobility, and any signs of pain. If your dog has good and bad days, looking back over the last two weeks and counting good and bad days could help.

Preparing to say goodbye to your dog

Saying goodbye to your beloved canine companion is likely one of the hardest things you'll ever have to do. While we know there's nothing that can make this process easier, here are a few things you might want to consider:

Keep them comfortable

If your dog is coming to the end of life, make sure they are as pain-free as possible. Your veterinarian will be able to offer palliative care medication that could relieve pain or improve quality of life for a while. If you’re concerned about the financial implications of seeking help for your pet, be sure to read our guide “my dog is dying and I can’t afford the vet: How to get your dog the care they need” for advice on the options available to you.

Make memories

If it’s nearing time to say goodbye to your loyal four-legged friend, try to spend some quality time with them, making memories. This could mean a short trip to their favourite spot, or a cuddle and their favourite treats.

Decide on a keepsake

You may decide to bury your dog in the garden (check the laws in your area first), or perhaps you would choose to have your dog cremated so that you can scatter their ashes in a special place. Some people choose to plant commemorative plants, keep fur or paw prints, or turn ashes into jewellery.

Speak to your veterinarian

If you think it’s time to say goodbye to your dog, speak to your veterinarian. They will be able to arrange the procedure either at the clinic or at your home. They will make it as peaceful and dignified as possible and can help point you in the direction of support and ways to manage grief if you need it.

Summary

Saying goodbye to our furry family members is the hardest moment in any pet parent’s life. However, spotting the signs that their quality of life is suffering and making the decision to euthanise them, is often the kindest thing for your fur baby.

Dr Hannah Godfrey is a small animal vet with a love of dentistry and soft tissue surgery. She lives in Wales with her partner, son, and their two cats.