While a dog dying is every pet owner's nightmare, it's all too tempting to project a rational human explanation onto a dog. However, the truth is we may never exactly know whether a dog knows it is dying.
But there are certain clues to what dogs are aware of, so we can help them in the best way possible as they approach their final days.
Do dogs know when they are about to die?
It isn't easy to know how much a dog understands or feels near the end of its life. But some behaviours might be more apparent. Some dogs appear to be more clingy or attached to their owners, following them around constantly to remain close.
However, other dogs seem to want to distance themselves and be alone more than they normally would. You must pay attention to your dog's mental, emotional and physical symptoms to ensure your furry friend's final weeks or days are as stress-free as possible. Even if your dog doesn't know they are dying, they will certainly know something is not right.
Do dogs distance themselves when they are dying?
It's known that dogs will sometimes take themselves off on their own when they are about to die. This centuries-old pack animal behaviour would protect the rest of the pack's safety if one of the animals was sick or ageing and sensed it was their time to die. They would wander off on their own, so the rest of the group could move on without attracting dangerous predators.
This behaviour is so instinctive, even for domestic dogs, that they automatically do it, even though you are their pack and not in any danger. However, it may be that they are an older dog and simply confused or even scared, making them wander off.
Do dogs know when another dog is dying?
While humans may be able to tell when their beloved dog is ill and close to the end, dogs can too. Dogs are probably more in tune with their environment than we are and will likely understand that their canine companion is nearing the end of its life. Dogs who sense that death is near tends to cling to the sick or old pup. Dogs also have an incredible sense of smell and can detect tiny chemical and behavioural changes in those close to them. They can pick up when sicknesses, diseases and other physiological changes happen.
While it's not known exactly how much dogs understand about death, they certainly go through a grieving process after their four-legged sibling or owner has passed away. Like humans grieving, dogs can become depressed, lose their appetite and no longer be interested in their usual activities. Take your dog to your vet if you become worried about their behaviour.
How do you comfort a dying dog?
If your dog is at home when they pass away, there are some things you can do to make their last few hours more comfortable. For instance:
- Create a quiet, warm area for your dog to rest comfortably. Closely monitor their interactions with children and your other pets who may not understand the dog's condition
- Provide food and water for your dog but don't try to force them to have it as they may have lost their appetite
- Softly stroke your dog as you talk reassuringly to them. While it may be incredibly difficult, try to remain calm around your dog as they will pick up on your emotions
- Put some waterproof pet pads underneath or close to your dog if they are unable to go outside
- Speak to your vet if you think your dog is in pain or suffering, as they may be able to make house calls
Why do dogs try to hide when they are dying?
Dogs listen to their bodies, so when they realise that their body is failing and doesn't have the strength to fight back, they will often hide. Their instinct is to isolate themselves for protection. An elderly dog with declining health who is also blind, deaf, has poor coordination or neurological problems might wander off if they can.
What are the signs of a dog dying?
You may have noticed that your elderly dog has started to slow down, or you are already aware that they have heart failure. However, certain medical conditions can cause premature deaths in younger dogs too. The signs your dog is dying will depend on what is wrong with them. However, some of the common things to look out for include:
- Loss of interest in activities such as walks or play
- Withdrawing from interacting with family members
- Stopped eating or drinking
- Crying, panting and pacing
- Breathing has come faster, deeper or more shallow
- Slower heart rate
- Body has become stiff, and they have lost coordination
- Depression and a general lethargy
- Pale or blue gums
- They seek comfort and reassurance
Do dogs want to be alone when they die?
While their natural pack instinct may be to take themselves off to die, dogs don't want to die alone in most cases. Instead, they'd rather be with you when they pass away, just the same way they wanted to be with you every day of their life.
Losing a beloved pet is heartbreaking. For many people, when their dog dies, it's just like losing a member of their family. While it might be very painful, all you can do as your dog approaches the tail end of its life is to make sure they feel as loved, comfortable and safe as possible.