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Quality of life is the most important thing for our senior dogs, especially when they become sick. As your dog begins to show signs that he is close to the end of his life, you can help to keep him comfortable until he is ready to pass on.

By Kate Eldredge Basedow, LVT
January 28, 2021
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The worst thing about owning a dog is knowing that he will likely die before you. If you love an old or ill dog, you have likely worried about when it will be "time" and how you will know. There are many signs that you can watch for that signal that your dog's body is wearing out, and you can evaluate his quality of life from the comfort of home.

Signs a Dog May Be Dying

Many of these signs are also symptoms of treatable illnesses. If your dog is showing even one troubling change, a veterinary visit is in order to have him examined, especially if he had been doing well up to that point. Based on the exam and any diagnostics that are performed, your veterinarian can help guide you as to whether your dog's condition is treatable or if he has more significant challenges.

Conditions such as diabetes mellitus, kidney failure, liver failure, cancer, and heart failure often plague senior dogs. These diseases can often be treated when caught early, but as your dog ages and his illness progresses his condition may worsen. Multiple diseases occurring at the same time can cause increased discomfort and make treatment more difficult.

Extreme Weight Loss

Weight loss is very common in senior dogs and will start well before the end of life. Part of this is a normal aspect of the aging process: as the dog gets older, his body becomes less efficient at digesting protein, which causes him to lose muscle mass. Feeding a diet with higher levels of easily digestible protein can help to slow this process.

Illness can also cause weight loss, either due to a poor appetite from not feeling well or due to increased strain on the body. Cachexia is the extreme weight loss experienced by cancer patients. Cancer cells use a lot of energy as they endlessly reproduce and spread, and this demand for energy can lead to the breakdown of your dog's fat stores and muscles. 

Weight loss often accelerates as the dog ages or becomes more ill, even if he is still eating full meals.

Lethargy and Fatigue

Senior dogs sleep a lot. As your dog nears the end of his life, he will sleep more and more and will tire more easily. He may also opt to stay home on his dog bed instead of going on walks and outings like he used to.

Poor Coordination

As your dog's body ages his muscles and nerves stop functioning as well as they used to. Between the loss of muscle mass and the malfunction of proprioceptive nerves, his coordination will decline. He may struggle with steps and navigating obstacles, or slip on non-carpeted surfaces. Some dogs stumble or have trouble placing their feet correctly when walking. These signs are usually progressive, with only mild periodic bumbles at first that slowly become more frequent and more severe. Some dogs may also experience involuntary muscle twitching.

You can help your dog by providing non-slip surfaces for him to walk on and using a harness or sling to support him when walking and going outside to eliminate. Ramps can be helpful for navigating stairs and getting on and off furniture, but act as a spotter in case he loses his balance and falls off a narrow ramp.

Incontinence

Incontinence, or loss of control of the bladder and/or bowels, is a fairly common occurrence in senior dogs. This can occur for a variety of reasons that may be completely treatable (for example, urinary incontinence due to a urinary tract infection).

Some dogs may pee or poop in their sleep, while others may dribble urine or even defecate as they walk without seeming to notice. Incontinence can be upsetting for our dogs because they naturally don't want to soil the house. Be compassionate and never scold your dog for these accidents, as that will only increase his distress. More frequent trips outside and some medications can help. Incontinence will often worsen as your dog nears the end of his life.

Senior dog with brown and white fur lays on floor
Credit: methaphum / Adobe Stock

Decreased Mobility

Decreased mobility is a common symptom of aging and will steadily get worse. This may be due to pain from arthritis or other old injuries, loss of muscle mass causing a decrease in strength, or unsureness because of declining vision. Changes in mobility often start off subtly, with the dog trotting after a ball instead of running, then gradually progress to not being able to jump on furniture or into the car, struggling with stairs, and having trouble getting up after a nap. 

You can help your dog by making sure food and water bowls are easily accessible and using a sling or harness to help him in and out of the house. He may need a boost to help get up. Eventually, he may be unable to maintain a standing position at all and may struggle to walk.

Confusion

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) is very similar to dementia in humans. Early signs of CCD include pacing at night, fussiness, and irritability. As it progresses, your dog may seem to get lost in the house and yard or not to know who you are. Be especially careful when waking a sleeping dog with CCD, as they may nip or snap when distrubed if they don't know where they are or what is happening.

Behavior Changes

Dogs can show a variety of behavioral changes when they are dying. The exact changes will vary from dog to dog, but the key is that they are changes.

Some dogs will become restless, wandering the house and seeming unable to settle or get comfortable. Others will be abnormally still and may even be unresponsive. Your dog's sleeping patterns may change. He may become cranky and difficult to handle, either due to pain or disorientation.

Some dogs seek out the comfort and company of their humans to the point of clinginess, while others become more solitary and seek quiet corners to be alone. Some dogs seem to know when they are about to die and wander off to a secluded location in the house or yard for their final moments.

Dehydration and Not Drinking

Water is extremely important for your dog's health. As he ages or becomes more ill he may lose interest in his water bowl. Try adding water to his food or feeding a canned diet to increase his moisture intake.

Giving water via an oral syringe or squirt bottle (always use a fresh bottle that has never had cleaning products in it) may be appropriate in some cases, but do so carefully. Aim your dog's muzzle downward and only squirt a small amount of water into his mouth at a time. Forcing too much water into his mouth can cause the water to go down his trachea and into his lungs, causing choking and even aspiration pneumonia. Your dog should swallow automatically in response to the water on his tongue. Loss of the swallow reflex is a very bad sign.

Poor Response to Treatments

As your dog's body wears out, he may stop responding to treatments and medications that had previously kept him happy and healthy. A dog with arthritis may require additional pain medications, or a dog with diabetes may require seemingly endless insulin dose changes. A dog with cancer may continue to lose weight and deteriorate despite treatment and appetite stimulants to keep him eating well.

Dull Eyes

Dogs near the end of their life often have a change in their eyes. You may notice that your dog's eyes seem glassy or dull. A change in the appearance of the eye(s) alone is often simply a sign of an eye problem, but these changes in conjunction with other signs can indicate the end of life.

Abnormal Odor

A dying dog's body is no longer functioning properly. Malfunctioning metabolism can cause changes in body odor that will vary depending on the exact cause.

Poor Temperature Regulation

Aging and sick dogs often have trouble regulating their body temperature, and will become hot or cold very easily. If you live in a warm climate, provide your dog with a shady, well-ventilated place to rest. For colder areas, make sure your dog has access to a warm cozy bed to curl up in or a nice warm spot in the sun or by a radiator to nap.

Lack of Appetite and Not Eating

Lack of appetite is common at the end of life. Dogs who feel sick often don't want to eat, and some medications may cause your dog to lose his sense of smell or taste, making food less appealing. To increase your dog's interest in food, try offering foods with a strong aroma so he can smell them better. You can also warm his food to increase the scent.

Your veterinarian can also prescribe an appetite stimulant to improve your dog's desire to eat. If it is suspected that your dog might be nauseous, an antiemetic such as Cerenia may be prescribed to help him feel better.

Lack of Interest and Depression

Dogs at the end of their lives frequently lose interest in their favorite things, from walks and toys to treats and even their beloved owners. At first it might just appear that your dog is sleeping more, but as you pay more attention you will notice that he is no longer doing things like greeting you at the door or wagging his tail when you tease him with a favorite toy.

Dogs with mobility challenges may become frustrated by no longer being able to do the things they enjoyed, which can lead to depression.

Abnormal Breathing

Breathing is controlled by muscles and nerves, and is not immune to the slow breakdown of your dog's body. Your dog may start showing abnormal breathing patterns, with his respiratory rate fluctuating up and down even when he is at rest. He may stop breathing periodically and then resume again.

Signs of difficulty breathing include open-mouthed breathing, stretching his head and neck out straight while the rest of his body is still, or moving his abdomen in and out as he breathes. This is an emergency and should be treated immediately.

Seizures

Some dogs may begin to experience seizures at the end of their lives. This can be due to metabolic imbalances from conditions such as kidney failure or due to problems with the brain itself. Depending on the cause and its severity, these seizures may or may not respond to treatment. A seizure that lasts more than 10 minutes or seizures that occur in clusters one after another are emergencies.

End-of-Life Care: How to Make Your Dog’s Last Days Comfortable

It can be so difficult to say goodbye to your dog, but there are things you can do as a loving pet parent to make sure your dog is as comfortable as possible and show them continuous acts of care and compassion near the end of their life.

  • Keep him warm. Provide a comfortable bed and a cozy resting spot.
  • Make sure he has palatable food, such as canned food or some plain cooked chicken mixed in with his kibble. If he is supposed to be on a prescription diet but hates it, this is the time to let him eat whatever he wants.
  • Keep him company or leave him alone depending on his preferences.
  • Stick to your usual routines as much as possible so your dog has a schedule that he is familiar with and enjoys. If long walks are no longer an option, spend that time sitting together instead.
  • Consult with your veterinarian about medications to alleviate your dog’s symptoms. These could range from pain medications to appetite stimulants and beyond. Since you are thinking in the short term, maximum comfort is more important than the risk of long-term side effects.
  • Make a plan for your dog’s end-of-life care. If you opt for euthanasia, discuss with your vet the logistics of making an appointment (most hospitals try to schedule euthanasia appointments at the beginning or end of the day so you can have more privacy). If your dog hates going to the vet, look into at-home pet euthanasia services or ask about an oral sedative to give beforehand to make the process less stressful. Decide whether you want to bury him or have him cremated.
  • Tell your dog it is okay to go. Let him know that he is loved and that he has been your best friend, and that he can go when he is ready.

How Do I Know It Is Time?

Most owners know in their gut when their dogs are ready to pass on, but it can be an extremely difficult realization.

  • Keep track of your dog’s good days and bad days. Occasional bad days are a part of life, but there will come a point when the bad days outnumber the happy, comfortable ones.
  • Note whether or not your dog still enjoys his favorite things. Does he wag his tail when you rub his face? Does he try to play with his toys or sniff the grass on walks? Does he gulp down his favorite treats?

Talk over what you are seeing with your friends, family, and veterinarian. These people are your support system and can act as a sounding-board for you as you evaluate your dog's comfort. And talk to your dog too. While it may sound silly at first, we know our dogs and our dogs know us. Hold him and pet him and talk it over. Your dog just might tell you when he is ready.

You Have Options When It’s Time to Say Goodbye

While some dogs do pass away peacefully in their sleep, many are not so lucky. As a pet owner you can choose whether you want your dog to have a natural death or to ease his suffering by putting him to sleep. Choose what feels right for you and your dog.

Euthanasia is when a veterinarian gives an overdose of a sedative, usually the injectable pentobarbital. The process is painless and quick, usually over in 10 to 20 seconds. The dog goes quickly to sleep and then his heart stops.

Choosing euthanasia can be very difficult for owners, but ending suffering and pain is also the most compassionate gift we can give. If you are unsure about whether or not your dog is suffering or if euthanasia is appropriate for your dog, talk to your veterinarian. He or she will answer any of your questions about the process and your dog's current condition and likelihood of returning to a healthy and comfortable life.

Grieving the Loss of Your Dog

Grieving the loss of your dog is natural and completely normal. Our dogs are part of our family—our constant companions and closest confidants. Take that personal day from work if you need to, and talk to your friends and family about your feelings. 

If you have other pets, let the routine of caring for them be a source of normalcy, and let them comfort you as well. No other pet can ever replace your dog in your heart, but they are each special in their own way and bring their own gifts to our lives. Look through photos and videos of your dog and remember him at his best, doing the things he loved with you by his side.