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Pet Health

End-of-Life Care: How to Help a Dying Dog

What signs might you see if your dog is dying? How can you help them feel more comfortable throughout the process? These are difficult topics but important to consider when you have a terminally ill dog.

Dr. Gary Hsia

March 13, 2024

Losing a beloved pet is one of the most difficult experiences a pet parent can face. When a dog reaches the end of its life, it is especially important to provide them with comfort, love, and support. Understanding how to help a dying dog can make their final days more peaceful and ensure they receive the support they need. In this blog, we will discuss various aspects of end-of-life care for dogs and provide guidance on how to navigate this challenging time.

Recognizing Signs of Dying

Recognizing the signs that a dog is nearing the end of its life is crucial in order to provide appropriate care. While no one sign is exclusively indicative of the end of life, some common signs that may occur near the end of life include:

  • Loss of Appetite: a decreased interest in food or refusal to eat altogether
  • Weight Loss: noticeable weight loss despite regular eating habits
  • Lethargy: lack of energy or reduced activity levels
  • Difficulty Breathing: labored breathing or shortness of breath; either of which constitutes an emergency
  • Changes in Behavior: increased aggression, confusion, or disorientation
  • Incontinence: loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Anxiety and Discomfort: visible signs of anxiety or pain, such as whimpering or restlessness

If you observe these signs in your dog, it is essential to consult with a veterinarian to determine whether or not the condition is manageable and how to pursue the best course of action.

Veterinary Care

Seeking veterinary care is crucial when dealing with a dying dog. A veterinarian can assess your dog’s condition, provide pain and anxiety management strategies, and offer guidance on end-of-life decisions. They may recommend therapies or medications to alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life. Regular communication with the vet during this stage will help to ensure your understanding of the outward signs of the disease process and aid in your dog’s well-being throughout the journey.

Comfort and Environment

Creating a comfortable environment for your dog is a practical way to look after their end-of-life needs. Consider the following:

A Quiet and Peaceful Space

Provide a calm and quiet area for your dog to rest, away from excessive noise or activity. This is especially important when there are high energy pets or children in the home.

Soft Bedding

Use comfortable bedding to relieve pressure points and provide a cozy spot for them to lie down. Consider using orthopedic beds to provide support where needed.

Temperature Control

Keep the room at a comfortable temperature. You will want to avoid extreme heat or cold. However, your dog may benefit from a little supplemental heat; such as a pet safe heating pad. Your dog’s vet can give you guidance on whether such measures are indicated for your pet’s situation as well as best practices for safety.

Gentle Physical Contact

Offer gentle petting and cuddling if your dog enjoys it, but be mindful of their comfort level which may be changing. Veterinary chiropractors and acupuncturists can provide therapeutic body manipulation and may be able to train you to perform some of the simpler movements.

Emotional Support

During this difficult time, it is crucial to have emotional support not only for your dog but also for yourself. Dogs can sense their loved ones’ stress, so maintaining a calm and soothing presence can help alleviate their anxiety. Consider the following:

Spend Quality Time Together

Engage in activities your dog enjoys, when possible. This may look very different than in the past, but gentle playtime with favorite toys or laying outdoors in a familiar spot can bring joy and comfort.

Maintain Routines

As much as possible, stick to familiar routines to provide a sense of stability and comfort. You may find that you need to provide more frequent opportunities to eat, drink, and eliminate but maintaining the same rituals and routines surrounding these activities can signal to your dog what is coming next and alleviate additional anxiety or confusion.

Seek Support

Reach out to friends, family, or to support groups who have experienced similar struggles and losses. Sharing your feelings and experiences can be validating and therapeutic. It can also be helpful to those with whom you are sharing.

Nutrition and Hydration

As a dog’s appetite often decreases during the end-of-life stage, it is important to ensure they receive proper nutrition and hydration. Consult with your veterinarian about appropriate dietary options for your dog. They may suggest offering smaller meals more frequently and switching to easily digestible foods or formulations. Providing access to fresh water at all times is essential but still may not be sufficient to maintain hydration; your vet may recommend administration of subcutaneous fluids to combat dehydration.

Considering Euthanasia

The decision to pursue euthanasia is one of the most challenging moments of your dog’s end-of-life care. It is important to consult with your veterinarian regarding the timing and the process of euthanasia. Together, you can unpack factors such as your dog’s quality of life, pain, anxiety levels, response to treatment, and overall well-being. For dogs that have already begun the dying process, euthanasia can be a compassionate gift to prevent unnecessary suffering. If you decide to pursue euthanasia for your beloved dog it may help to know:

Palliative Pain Management

When the goal shifts from managing pain in a dog that will recover to keeping the dog as comfortable as possible through the dying process, certain medications can be given at higher doses or more frequently as future organ health is no longer a concern. Additionally, there may be additional medications, modalities, or tools for fighting pain and other symptoms in the palliative stage.

Treats Are Welcome

Spoil your dog with their favorite or even forbidden treats. Just be aware that too many good things or giving them too far in advance of the euthanasia may result in GI upset. Consult with the veterinarian performing the euthanasia for tips on timing and quantity; they may also have suggestions for fun and unique treats.

You Can Say ‘Goodbye’ at Home

You may consider an in-home end-of-life experience for your dog, so your final hours together are at home where your pet is most comfortable and surrounded by familiar sights, sounds, and smells. You can curate the environment that will best suit your family through soft lighting, gentle music, and a comfortable place for yourself near where your dog chooses to lay.

You Can Be Present

Your presence can help keep your dog calm and comforted, even if it's just sitting near them where they can hear your voice catch your scent. If you are unable to remain with them during the euthanasia procedure, consider staying until after the pre-medications have taken effect. Your vet can let you know when your dog is asleep and invite you to exit before they administer the euthanasia medication.

Possible Emergent Conditions

A frank discussion with your vet will help you to know what conditions may occur in the course of your pet’s disease process that would warrant an immediate medical intervention. An unassisted death can be quite painful both for the dying dog and for the family who witness it. Should your pet enter the active dying process they may need to be brought to an emergency clinic or urgent care facility sooner than the anticipated euthanasia time.

Coping with Loss

After your dog has passed away, coping with the loss is an important part of the healing process. Everyone grieves differently, but some strategies that may help include:

Allow Yourself to Grieve

It is natural to feel a range of emotions after losing a pet. Give yourself permission to grieve and express your emotions in the way and the time that it takes.

Memorialize Your Dog

Create a memorial or tribute in honor of your dog, such as planting a tree or creating a photo album, shadowbox, or commissioning a piece of art. Read our list of twelve pet memorial ideas for more inspiration.

Seek Needed Support

The level of pet loss support needed can vary from person to person and at different times throughout life. Surround yourself with healthy outlets for grief and supportive relationships. If your grief is becoming overwhelming, join a grief and loss support group or engage the service of a professional counselor. Such resources exist in generalized support and specialized support for pet loss, regardless of which you pursue, please advocate for yourself and reach out to those equipped to help.

Remember that it takes time to heal from the loss of a beloved pet, and each person's grieving process is unique to them and even to each loss they suffer.

Helping a dying dog through their final stages of life requires compassion, understanding, the appropriate care, and grace for oneself. While it will look different for every family and every dog, you can make your dog’s final days as comfortable and as meaningful as possible.

How to Help My Dying Dog

Dr. Gary Hsia

Fresno, CA


Dr. Gary graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 2010. After graduation, he moved west. Dr. Gary spent a year at a mixed animal practice in Oregon before moving to Fresno where he worked at All Creatures Veterinary Clinic from 2011-2021.  Read More

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