Losing a dog is always extremely difficult, especially if you have raised and cared for your dog from puppyhood. Different people cope with the loss in different ways, but the feeling can be similar to losing a loved one. The house seems empty, life can feel emptier, and everyone who loved and cared for the dog will need appropriate time and space to grieve. Understanding how your dog approaches its final days is important to loving and caring for your dog up to the bittersweet end. Contrary to the prevailing belief, your dog wants to be by your side up to the very end. Here are some facts about dogs that pass away from old age, and how to provide the best possible end-of-life care to your lifelong, beloved companion.
The Root of the Behavior
When a dog approaches the end of its life, it can begin to behave strangely. Some dog owners have reported that their dogs began sleeping in places that they had never slept before, ignored or failed to complete lifelong routines, or wandered off as if lost or wanting to be alone. From these patterns of strange behavior, a myth arose that dogs approaching the end of their life prefer to be alone as they seek out a quiet, solitary, peaceful place to die. Furthermore, the prevailing opinion is that dogs that die of old age die painlessly, and without any suffering. Such beliefs make it easier for humans to cope with the loss of their beloved friend.
Unfortunately, the reality is not as simple as your dog wandering off into the woods to lay down peacefully for the long sleep. Elderly dogs, like elderly humans, begin to experience difficulties performing daily tasks as they age. Eventually, it becomes difficult and ultimately impossible for dogs to continue to carry out functions essential to life. Walking, lying down, getting up, eating, drinking water, and even breathing can become a great difficulty. Many dogs who reach advanced stages of life live with a lot of pain. They can also suffer from mental degeneration and fearfulness. Unfortunately, the reality is simply that dying of old age for any species is not the gentle, idyllic death that many would like to believe in.
There are several theories suggesting that dogs that reached this stage of life in the wild opted to separate themselves from the pack so as not to slow the group down. Some also suggest that dogs intuitively know when they are going to die and leave their owners to spare them grief. Although these theories are not completely invalid, veterinarians and researchers attribute the strange behaviors of elderly dogs—including wandering off and disappearing—to age-related cognitive dysfunction and physical decline. When a dog wanders off, it is more likely that they become confused, scared, or stuck in a situation that they cannot get out of.
Encouraging the Behavior
The reality is that your dog wants to be with you when it passes away, the same way that it wanted to be with you every day of its life. In the same way that humans must care for their elderly as they become less able to care for themselves, owners should pay closer attention to their dogs and care for them more as they become old. Like humans, old dogs are most likely to suffer from impaired vision and hearing. Cognitive dysfunction is also common in older dogs. It tends to present in dogs the way that Alzheimer’s disease might in a human. All of these impaired abilities can make it easier for your dog to become lost, confused, and scared. Monitor all of your dog’s symptoms closely and do your best to keep them safe, warm, and content in their old age.
For many dog owners, the daily suffering of their elderly dog can become difficult to cope with. There are a multitude of health complications that can arise in old age, many of which can cause your dog immense, chronic pain. At some point, your veterinarian may suggest that euthanasia as a compassionate, painless way to shepherd your dog out of this life. Though extremely difficult for the owner, choosing to put your dog down can sometimes be the only way to avoid violent suffering on your dog’s behalf. Furthermore, you will have the option to be with your dog while it is euthanized. Although some find this too difficult to bear, many find great comfort in knowing that their dog died a safe, painless, and unafraid death in their arms.
Other Solutions and Considerations
For those seeking to keep their dog at home and as comfortable as possible—without resorting to euthanasia—veterinary hospice programs are available. You can learn about how to care for your dog in its old age according to its specific health issues. Many programs involve the active participation of a veterinarian, who can make sure that your dog isn’t suffering from any chronic or unbearable health complications. You will need to learn new dietary, grooming, and pain management skills in order to ensure that your dog is as comfortable as it could possibly be while it approaches its final days. Even so, this type of care may not rule out the compassionate choice of euthanasia, especially in cases where it is apparent that your dog’s suffering is unbearable.
Losing a dog is never painless. Dogs can bring life and happiness to everyone that they meet, especially to those who care for them throughout their lives. The only thing that you can make absolutely sure of as your dog approaches the tail end of its life is that it is loved, safe, and comfortable as it passes out of the hands of the living.
Written by a Australian Shepherd lover Jonah Erickson
Veterinary reviewed by:
Published: 03/09/2018, edited: 01/30/2020