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Do Dogs Know When They Are Dying? Experts Weigh In

Old sick dog
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There are some signs people with terminal illnesses exhibit that can indicate they know it’s time. They may begin to gasp for air, withdraw, or conversely, experience a burst of energy. But does this concept also apply to our pets? Though sick dogs can exhibit many of these same symptoms, how can we be certain they’re aware of their fate? Do dogs know when they are dying? 

We asked veterinarians to weigh in and offer insights on what may be happening.

(Note: While our experts provide theories of what could be going on with your pet as they get closer to death, don’t make assumptions when it comes to your dog’s health. If your pup is showing any troubling physical or behavioral signs, contact your veterinarian for guidance.)

Do Dogs Know When They Are About to Die?

There’s evidence that dogs mourn the death of humans and other animals. You’re probably familiar with stories of dogs who howl and refuse to leave the side of their deceased loved ones. The way they react to death isn’t uniform or robotic, either. As individuals, dogs react differently to death, just like humans do. Some dogs, for example, may become clingy while others withdraw.

But do dogs know when they are about to die?

While we may never learn the whole truth, veterinarians think dogs know something is up. One clue comes from wolves. “Historically, pack animals would often remove themselves from the group voluntarily if sick to prevent attention from predators,” says Dr. Audrey Weaver, a partner doctor who works at Heart + Paw in their Glen Mills, Pennsylvania location.

What’s unclear is whether dogs behave this way because they know it’s their time or if it’s a reaction to being in distress. Dogs live for the moment and depend on a regular routine, according to Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club, based in New York City. “When that routine is unable to be achieved,” he says, “I suspect that dogs become frustrated and possibly depressed.”

And though dogs may sense something’s amiss, they don’t understand concepts like illness and death as we do. “So you can tell a dog, ‘You have cancer with six months to live,’ and they won’t be upset. They live in the moment,” says Dr. Mary Gardner, co-founder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice and author of the book, “It’s Never Long Enough: A practical guide to caring for your geriatric dog.”

One thing we know for certain is that dogs feel pain and can suffer. “And I think that is what is most important. And they also don’t know that relief will come. So I do think they know when they are miserable,” adds Dr. Gardner.

Dog Behavior Changes Before Death

Old dog on blanket

Pet parents have shared stories of dogs who’ve seemingly reacted to their approaching death. “Many owners mention that end-of-life animals seem to mimic what dogs do in the wild at the end of their days: they walk or crawl to a dark, safe place if they are able to maneuver, stop eating or drinking,” says Dr. Klein.

Other pet parents report that their dog appeared calmer, “as if they were ‘ready’ or knew that any physical pain they’d been experiencing would end,” says Dr. Gabrielle Fadl, director of Primary Care at Bond Vet, based in New York City.

Dog behavior before death can vary. “For example, a pet with cardiac disease that is declining may become progressively more lethargic, some become anxious as their breathing becomes affected, [and] disorientation and imbalance can also be seen if the pet has poor blood flow and oxygenation to the brain,” says Dr. Weaver. “Senior dogs (and cats) can develop dementia-like signs as they age, just like humans. Pacing, panting, whining or crying may be seen, as well as wandering off to unusual places in the home.” 

This, of course, begs the question: do dogs understand death, or does this behavior mean something else?

These behaviors don’t necessarily mean a dog is reacting to their impending death. “While some people may report their pet wanting to be alone or lying in a specific spot, if related at all, I suspect it is more instinct than any actual thoughts about death,” says Dr. Mandi Shearhart, a veterinarian with the NWA Veterinary Programs at Best Friends Animal Society in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

What seems like an awareness of death to us may just be a way for a dog to seek relief. “They simply may find comfort from their pain in a safe spot, or a warm spot, or a spot where people stop bothering them. Let’s say a dog is in heart failure and is struggling to breath. I don’t think the dog thinks to [themself]: ‘This is it, I’m dying.’ They are probably just thinking, ‘I cannot breath and I am scared’,” explains Dr. Gardner.

This isn’t to say that experts can say without a doubt that dogs can’t sense their own death. Dogs do, after all, have abilities that we don’t – like a sixth sense that allows them to detect variations in magnetic fields – so it’s not impossible. For now, however, the research on dog death is too limited to be able to provide a definitive answer.

Making End of Life Decisions for Dogs

Man petting and loving old dog

The dog dying process is not only difficult, but it’s also not always straightforward. “Every situation is unique, and there is not always an easy way to know that it is the right time [to say goodbye],” says Dr. Shearhart.

That said, veterinarians rely on certain criteria when making recommendations. One of these is the quality of the dog’s life. In order to help determine this, Dr. Ashley Barnes, medical director at Louisville Family Animal Hospital in Louisville, Colorado, recommends looking at your dog’s behavior, considering things like: “Are they separating themselves from the family and disengaging? Are they still doing activities they enjoy, like playing with a favorite toy or going for walks? Are they wanting or able to eat? Are they able to take care of basic functions, like going outside to eliminate?”  

Other indicators of good life quality, adds Dr. Weaver, include drinking readily, not demonstrating overt pain, and exhibiting normal energy levels.  

Another critical component in the end-of-life decision-making process is whether the condition causing the illness can effectively be treated. “Before assuming an animal is just getting old or getting ready to die, it is important to visit your veterinarian and discuss any physical or behavior changes you have seen,” says Dr. Shearhart. “There may be things that can be done to increase both the quality and quantity of your dog’s life.”

We have a few tips to help you navigate this process.

Trust Your Veterinarian

Veterinarians are true allies for you and your dog. They’re in the best position to help you explore all options and offer ways to improve your dog’s quality of life.

“Your veterinarian is usually the one person familiar with your dog’s medical and physical condition and will offer the most objective assessment of your dog. Friends sometimes try to help, and they can be a beneficial support system if they have already experienced a similar situation,” says Dr. Klein.

Remember That Quality of Life is More Important Than Quantity

“I strongly believe that the quality of a dog’s life is way more important than the quantity. We have the wonderful gift of allowing peaceful passage and preventing suffering in our canine companions, and I think it is something to be considered when their quality of life is no longer acceptable,” says Dr. Shearhart.

Whether or not a dog understands they’re about to die, there are several things a pet parent can do to alleviate the pain and discomfort for as long as possible, says Dr. Fadl. “Some health issues might be curable or treatable, whereas for others, the focus is on alleviating pain and improving quality of life.”

Start a Health Journal

One issue complicating the process is when a dog’s health status changes daily, which is why Dr. Fadl recommends keeping a health journal for your dog. “That way, you can tell when the bad days start outnumbering the good. Also, keep track of things your dog loves to do – things that really make them happy – and take note of when they are no longer able to do these things.”

Prepare Before There’s an Issue

While thinking about your beloved dog dying is unpleasant, Dr. Fadl explains that it can be helpful to have a plan in place when your pup starts aging and showing symptoms. “Decide what is best for your individual pet, whether that is at a veterinary practice [or] using a mobile or hospice vet that can perform the euthanasia in your home. That way, when the day comes, the process will be as smooth and peaceful as possible for your dog.”

Put Your Dog’s Best Interest First

Let whatever is in your dog’s best interest guide your decisions. “In the end, it comes down to making the most selfless decision for your dog and not the most selfish one,” says Dr. Klein.

Take Advantage of Available Resources

There are plenty of resources out there that can help guide you through the dog dying process.

As previously mentioned, keeping a journal helps you keep track of your dog’s symptoms, which could be useful to you and your veterinarian when making end-of-life decisions. A couple free online worksheets available include:

An increasing number of veterinarians also offer in-home pet care, which can ease the burden if your dog is very sick.

Where to find in-home veterinarians:

If/when you do make the decision for humane dog euthanasia, know that there are lots of additional resources available to help you navigate this difficult process.