Dogs often sleep for hours on end, and it’s easy to think they’re just taking a nap. Maybe they’re dreaming about chasing a squirrel, or stalking a cat. But the question we are asking today is ‘do dogs die in their sleep?’ and how can we tell that your beloved dog’s time on this earth may be coming to an end? If you have ever wondered about either of these things, then read on…
Can dogs die in their sleep? The short answer is yes, it is possible for dogs to die in their sleep. But in most cases this does not happen. Research has shown that most owners will choose to have their dog ‘put down’ or ‘put to sleep’ by a vet long before natural causes take their life.
Why is this, you may ask….
If possible, you’d want your dog to die peacefully of old age, you wouldn’t mind if this is in their sleep, as long as it is peaceful — and it’s “in that sleep of death,” as Hamlet puts it, where we would hope they find peace. Much as you might want to wait, if your dog is in agony, or is deteriorating painfully on an inevitable slide towards death, you might wonder if it wouldn’t be more humane to put them to sleep, and “by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache” for ourselves and “the thousand natural shocks” which may be paining your dear four-legged friend.
As a pet owner it is vital you are ready and prepared when your dog is getting to the end of the road. With this in mind, we want to give you a list of possible warning signs that this may be happening.
Having this extra time can help you decide if you should wait until your dog dies in their sleep on their own or help them “To sleep, perchance to dream.”
8 Signs Your Dog Might be Close to Death
1. Heavy Breathing
One of the first, biggest, and most tragic signs that your dog may be nearing the end is if it’s breathing heavily. Now, this doesn’t mean just “panting,” so don’t worry about your dog breathing heavily after an intense game of fetch. However, if merely walking across the room causes them to pant as if they’ve just run a marathon, there might be trouble.
Straining and sticking their neck out, open-mouthed breathing that looks like gasping, being unable to even lie down without breathing heavily — all of these are major red flags. At the very least, they’re a reason to suspect something’s very, very wrong and call your vet immediately. At worst, it may be a sign that your dog is at death’s door and you’ll need to either act fast to save their life or, if you can’t, at least make sure that they don’t go in agony.
This becomes a bit more complex when it concerns older dogs. As with elderly people, older dogs aren’t what they used to be physically and so are more prone to huffing and puffing it over less strenuous activities. This alone doesn’t mean that they are close to death, nor is louder breathing. However, if their struggle gets dramatically worse and continues on that trajectory, that’s a bad sign.
One thing that you can do is to try and make things as easy as possible for your dog by making sure their water and food bowls are easily accessible. Keep them slightly elevated so your dog doesn’t have to strain their back to reach them, and don’t make your dog walk too far to get to them.
2. Stops Eating and Drinking
If your dog reaches the bowl and doesn’t want to eat or drink, and has that same level of disinterest time after time, day after day, something is wrong. Dogs usually love to eat and play, and the latter makes them thirsty enough to want to drink. While you obviously don’t want your dog to go to the other extreme and make a pig of themself, dogs are normally eager eaters, so denying food paired with losing weight is a double whammy which typically means that your dog is, at the very least, quite sick.
Before you start to panic too much, however, you should first try switching up their food. You’d get bored too if you ate the same thing every day, especially if it’s dry kibble. If you’re serving them dry food, try wet food, or try serving their favorite foods; if they still don’t eat after a couple of days, it’s time to take them to the vet ASAP.
3. Lethargy, Ennui, and Depression
Everyone gets tired sometimes, and your dog is no different, but if they no longer play, always lack energy, constantly look depressed, or become withdrawn and unresponsive, chances are that something’s wrong. Part of this can be down to mobility problems or their body breaking down, but the mental component is also palpable. Confronting age and death can be depressing, and dogs are emotionally acute enough to feel that depression as well.
4. Loss of Coordination
Whether due to the onset of neurological conditions or simply the result of the body breaking down, a loss of coordination is a bad indication for your dog’s health. This can range from your dog not being able to stand anymore to them stumbling around arrhythmically to them having trouble accurately judging the distance in front of them. The latter of these can be due to a loss of eyesight as well as coordination, both of which can be signs that they are nearing the end.
Another potential cause of poor coordination is a lack of hydration, which, you’ll remember from above, is another potential sign of trouble.
We begin life in diapers, in some cases we end life in them, and the same can hold true for dogs as the muscles in their body begin to weaken, those controlling their urinary tract and bowels among them. Incontinence can likewise result as your dog’s kidneys start to shut down, which can be an even bigger problem in terms of their imminent mortality. In any event, your dog may be producing more urine than their body can hold in, which can also lead to this. We’ve already seen how dogs can stop drinking water as they approach death, and this can be connected to that with dogs sensing that they can no longer retain water or feeling pain when they relieve themselves.
The latter case can also be due to arthritis. This isn’t a cause of death in and of itself, so there’s no need to panic if your dog does develop arthritis. That said, you’ll need to try and counteract it and make things easier on your dog’s back and legs as mentioned above. The pain of arthritis can in turn impact your dog’s ability to urinate or defecate. If it hurts to stand, they may just not bother to get up to go, but simply urinate or defecate on themselves right where they are.
Needless to say, incontinence and/or arthritis this bad is a bad sign. However, if your dog has accidents but still remains happy and active, chances are they aren’t in dire deathly straits but suffering from some other urinary issues.
6. Gastrointestinal Distress
In addition to the gastrointestinal incontinence described above, dogs can also start to suffer from stomach problems towards the end of their life. Again, this on its own doesn’t mean that your dog’s doomed to death soon, so don’t panic if your dog’s experiencing gastrointestinal distress. That said, given the unpleasantness of this for both them and you (not to mention your carpets and interior decorating), you’ll want to get your dog to a veterinarian straight away if your dog starts regularly vomiting or has diarrhea. Before you start freaking out, you’ll want to rule out if a bad diet is to blame.
7. Changes in Gum Color
This can be one of the most immediate signs that something is very wrong with your dog. If your dog’s gums start to turn blue, for instance, it can be a sign that they aren’t pumping enough oxygen, or else that your dog is suffering from pneumonia. On the other hand, if their gums are white, it could be a sign of anemia and blood loss. However, as with other things on this list, gum color alone isn’t a predictor of trouble: red gums can mean heatstroke, but they may also just mean gingivitis. Nevertheless, gum discoloration is another reason to consult your veterinarian ASAP.
8. Changes in Mood
One of the great tragedies of aging is that it changes us, and not always for the better. Just as people’s personalities can start to sour as they experience dementia, memory loss and muscle weakness, late-stage Parkinson’s, and other conditions that can alter their minds, the same holds true for dogs. If your once-chipper, eager, sunshine-of-your-life dog has turned into a bitter growling old lump that refuses to move and snarls or whimpers at the slightest provocation, they may be nearing the end.
Should You Wait?
What is most important is that you make your decision based on your dog’s best interests. It may be tempting to try and cling to a faithful friend that holds an enormous place in your heart, but if you really love them, you shouldn’t want them to suffer through agony. That said, this question can be just as easily flipped to say that if you really love them, you wouldn’t “give up” but exhaust all possibilities to keep them alive.
As mentioned above, you should definitely consult with a vet before getting too carried away. What appears to be an impossible situation may be treatable, or they may have other solutions available for you.
There is no easy answer to Hamlet’s immortal question, and there’s no single answer here. It’s really a question of ethics and what your personal philosophical outlook on death is and the condition in which you find your dog. Maybe your dog can die in its sleep peacefully, or maybe they’re in so much pain or on such a bad trajectory that it seems too cruel to let them suffer without hope.
Whether your dog sails off in their sleep or in the induced sleep of euthanasia, as with everyone else, they will make their final journey to “the undiscovered country” eventually, and all you can do is do your best to make the last months and days until they’ve “shuffled off this mortal coil” as peaceful as possible.
We also have another article about whether dogs smell before they die that might be a great follow on from this one.