Death is a part of life. As pet owners, it isn’t a part that we like to think about very much, but sadly it’s one that we all must eventually face. When it comes to our dogs passing, there are plenty of articles out there that are designed to help you to understand the process of death when it comes to euthanasia, but there are very few that tackle the topic of natural death. Although natural death does not happen all that often, here at Leesville Animal Hospital, we feel that pet owners should know what to expect when it does.
While few dogs pass away from natural causes, if you are the owner of an elderly dog, you may find yourself wondering what you should expect if your dog happens to be one of the few that does.
When you are the owner of a dog in hospice care, there are some signs that you should watch for that may signal that your pet is making their transition towards death. While these signs can be a sign of sickness or other changes as well, when they occur together or appear with a general sense that your pet is preparing for their passing, you can almost always guarantee that their time is drawing near. If you begin to notice these signs, it is always worth visiting your family veterinarian or asking them to make a house call to check on your dog. Your family veterinarian will have come to know your pet over the years and will be able to confirm your suspicions and help you to understand how you can make your pet feel more comfortable with the process of passing on.
Signs that you should be observant of in an elderly dog or a sick dog in hospice care include:
- Loss of coordination
- Loss of appetite
- No longer drinking water
- Lack of desire to move or a lack of enjoyment in things they once enjoyed
- Extreme fatigue
- Vomiting or incontinence
- Muscle twitching
- Slowed respiration
- Inability to get comfortable
- A desire to be closer to you or a desire to be alone (this can depend upon the dog, but will present as being an unusual need or behavior)
- Loss of consciousness
Weeks before your dog passes you will begin to notice some of these signs. Most commonly these signs follow a similar pattern to the following:
- 3 months to 3 weeks before your dog passes you may notice: weight loss, a lack of self-grooming, duller eyes, dehydration, and gastrointestinal changes.
- 3 weeks before your dog passes you may notice: increasing weight loss, picky eating, a change in respiration patterns, less interest in pleasurable activities, increased self-isolation, eye discharge and skin problems.
- The last few days before your dog passes you may notice: extreme weight loss, a distant look in their eyes, a lack of interest in anything, restlessness or unusual stillness, a change in the way that your dog smells, and a changed temperament.
As pet parents, we dread these moments – the realization that our beloved pets are moving on without us, but it is important to know during this time that our pets do not dread this moment as we do. For them, dying is as natural as living, it is something that “just happens” and while they will certainly sense any sense of dread that we may have, they do not dread the process of dying itself. So, for our pet’s peace of mind, it is our place to give them the comfort and reassurance that they need. We should make them as comfortable as we can by providing a warm and comfortable place to rest (it is best to ensure that your pet is on a blanket that can be used to move them), our companionship (or solitude if that is what they desire,) and our reassurance that it is okay to move on.
Many people will say that their beloved family pet continued to hang on to life until the very moment that they told their pet that it was okay to let go. We can’t help but see this as a continuation of the loyalty that our pets offer us throughout their lifetime. Our dogs are unable to move on without the peace of mind that we will be okay without them and that their job is complete. No matter how much it may hurt, we owe it to our pets to give them that reassurance.
When the time does come for our beloved dogs to pass on, many people worry that they will not know a) if their pet has truly passed on and b) what they should do next.
When your pet has passed on you will notice a number of signs that will tell you that they have left their body. The most prominent sign that you will notice is a complete relaxation of the body, your dog will no longer appear tense, rather they will “let go.” You will notice a slimming of the body as the air is expelled from their lungs for the last time and you may notice the lack of life in their eyes if they are still open. At this time, you should check for respiration and a heartbeat. If your dog no longer has a heartbeat and is no longer breathing and has been this way for 30 minutes, you can be sure that your pet has moved on.
Once your pet has moved on, what should you do? The first thing you may choose to do if your pet passed on with their eyes open is to close their eyes gently. During their passing, your pet may also have lost bladder or bowel control and many pet owners want to clean up their pets, this can be done using baby wipes, a wet facecloth or a wet towel. Perhaps what is most important during this time, however, is taking your time to be with your pet for the last time. Take as long as you need to say your goodbyes.
After saying goodbye, you will want to call your veterinarian or call a home visit veterinarian if your vet does not offer home visits. They will be able to confirm your pet’s passing and if desired, they will be able to transport your dog for cremation. Even if you have permission to bury your pet on your property, it is always best to have a veterinarian check in on them before you do so. Some owners choose to take their deceased pet to their veterinary clinic. If you choose to do this, wrap your pet in a clean and comfortable blanket and call your vet to let them know that you are coming. They will be able to give you any specific instructions for your visit and tell you what you need to bring with you.
If you choose to have your pet cremated, your veterinarian can take care of this process for you. All veterinarian clinics have pet crematoriums that they work with directly. If you prefer, however, you can arrange for this process yourself and accompany your dog to the crematorium personally. If you choose to do this, though, you must keep in mind that it should be done immediately or you must ask your veterinarian to keep your companion’s remains until you can make the trip on the following day.
When choosing cremation, you will have the opportunity to have a communal cremation where your pet will be cremated with other pets, or you can choose an individual cremation. An individual cremation is a more costly process, however, it is an individual process. After cremation, you may have chosen to receive your pet’s ashes back, or you may choose to have them scattered by the crematorium. It is up to you to choose what is best for you at this time.
If cremation is not an option that feels right for you, but you are not permitted to bury your pet on your property due to local laws, you may find that a pet cemetery is a better choice for you. There are pet cemeteries in every state and each cemetery has their own process for pet burials.
After you have said your goodbyes and taken care of your pet’s final needs, it may feel like your journey has come to an end. Here at Leesville Animal Hospital, however, we always prompt our family members to consider their own grief. Some people think it “silly” to be grieving for a pet and consequently, they dismiss their own grief. We believe that our pets are important members of our family, though, and their loss is felt as any loss should be. Give yourself time to grieve, recognize that grief, and don’t be afraid to seek out resources for managing your grief as you pass through this phase of your life. Be kind to yourself and know that you provided your pet with a lifetime of love.