Our dogs aren’t just pets.
They become members of our families. We naturally want to be there for our dog through those last months, weeks, and days of life so they—and we—can pass through them as comfortably and as joyfully as possible.
In this article we’ll discuss seven important ways you can give comfort to your dying dog, and what you can do when it is no longer possible to keep your dog comfortable.
But before we get started, we’ll cover two important principles of keeping dogs comfortable at the end of life that even caring dog owners overlook.
Before You Plan Your Dog’s Final Days, Talk with Your Vet
Most people find out their dogs are very sick only after a visit with the vet.
Before you even think about taking care of your dying dog and the possibility of euthanasia, speak with your vet about the options for treatment and how much they will cost.
You shouldn’t leave your dog’s future to chance. You should ask your vet to give you a clear picture of your dog’s options for treatment.
Then make your decisions on the basis of what’s right for your dog, for your family, and for yourself.
Even when expensive treatments are the only hope, many families who can afford treatment decide they don’t want to put their dog through painful, scary, isolating experiences.
They opt for palliative care. They choose to give their dog a higher quality of life for a shorter time.
Remember That for Dogs, Smelling Is Believing
Humans often perk up when they see a familiar face. Dogs often perk up when they sniff a familiar scent.
If you can’t be physically present with your dog as often as you would like when they are dying, your scent can be.
An old hat, an old blanket you have slept in but not washed, and the toys you and your dog played with carry your scent.
Placing these objects where your dog can smell them isn’t quite like being there, but they trigger your dog’s memories of the times spent with you.
If your family has more than one dog, a dog’s blanket and toys can bring comfort to your other dogs when a beloved pet is gone.
7 Things to Make Your Dog’s End of Life Comfortable
There isn’t any one-size-fits-all set of guidelines for taking care of dogs at the end of life.
Each dog and each family is a little different. But canine oncologist Dr. Alice Villalobos has identified seven aspects of quality of life that are important for every dog even when their condition is terminal.
Help Control the Pain
Pain control needs to be a priority as soon as your dog receives her diagnosis.
Many of the things you can do to minimize your dog’s pain don’t require drugs:
- You can make sure your dog doesn’t have to go up and down stairs. Some dogs need to be picked up and carried between floors of multi-level homes, while others can use ramps.
- You can make sure that your dog’s food and water dishes are at mouth level, so your dog doesn’t have to bend down to eat and drink.
- You can make sure your dog has a comfortable bed, with familiar toys. You shouldn’t put your dog in an entirely new bed without some old, familiar, scented toys. You can also make your dog’s stay in the animal hospital more comfortable when you bring some familiar, scented objects along for the stay.
Many pet parents make pharmaceutical pain control their highest priority in end-of-life care for their dogs.
It’s important to remember that pain relievers designed for humans aren’t appropriate for dogs.
It’s important to use the drugs the vet prescribes in the way the vet prescribes them.
But don’t hesitate to seek a prescription for more medication when your dog shows signs of untreated pain, such as panting while at rest, pawing at painful places, or licking.
It’s rare for dogs to cry out in pain, but this is absolutely a reason to seek pain relief from the vet.
Make Sure they Eat Well
Dogs love to eat, and their humans love to feed them.
Even at the end of life, the right canine diet can increase both the length and quality of life.
Dogs that have cancer, in particular, benefit from a high-quality diet. A quick review of some basic biology can help to explain why.
Cells make their own proteins from the amino acids broken down by digesting protein foods. When cells make proteins, they need exactly the right amino acids in exactly the right order.
If they don’t have all the amino acids they need, they can’t make the proteins they need.
Tumors demand a lot of amino acids, and when they don’t get the amino acids they need, they send out hormonal signals to break down healthy tissues to provide them.
This contributes to a phenomenon called wasting, which robs your dog of the muscle mass and muscle strength needed for play and basic life activities.
It is important to make up missing amino acids with complete protein.
Fillers like corn and wheat don’t give your dog the needed complete protein.
Dogs need meat and fish. Human-quality food helps dogs stay active longer and need less assistance with bathroom activities.
Ensure they are Properly Hyderated
It’s important to remember that all dogs need adequate hydration.
Simply keeping the water in your dog’s bowl makes a real difference in comfort.
Take Care of the Hygiene
Dogs continue to need combing and bathing when they are diagnosed with untreatable illnesses.
They still need to have their teeth brushed (with toothpaste in dog-favorite flavors, like liver, that you get from the pet store, using a canine toothbrush).
They need treatment for sores, and it is more important than ever to keep up with flea and mite control.
When dogs get sick, accidents will happen.
There needs to be a cleanup of both soiled surfaces and the dog himself. Urine on the skin can cause severe irritation if it’s not cleaned up.
Do Things that Make Your Dog Happy
It may not be possible to play catch with your dying dog. It may not be possible to take your dying dog on a walk.
Your dying dog may not be able to jump in the chair without you and snuggle.
But that doesn’t mean that your dog doesn’t still enjoy the same activities.
Take your dog out for a spin in a wheeled basket.
It’s a great exercise for you, and it gives your dog a chance to experience the sights, sounds, and scents she used to enjoy on her walk.
Play a less vigorous game of catch. Lift your dog to a comfortable position to join the family watching TV, or give your dog a bed underneath the table when you are playing games.
And don’t forget about treats.
Don’t Forget the Treats
One way of looking at treats is to regard them as little bribes we pay our dogs to do the things we want them to do.
Another way of looking at treats is as tokens of affection we give our dogs when they show the behaviors that make them part of our family.
Dying dogs still enjoy treats. Find activities to reward that remind your dog she is still part of the family (and that you are still alpha-dog), and continue to offer them just as long as your dog can swallow them.
Make Every Day a Good Day
Dying dogs have good days and bad days.
A good day might be a day your dog can take a short walk with you.
Another way to have a good day might be just visiting with your dog and petting them when they can’t get out of bed.
Don’t forget that smelling is believing. When your dog can’t go outdoors for play, bring outdoor scents to remind them of happy playtimes past.
And arrange visits with friendly dogs as your dog’s health permits.
A Checklist for Keeping Your Dying Dog Comfortable
Here’s a quick review of things you can do to keep a dying dog as comfortable as possible.
- Keep providing the basics. Your dog still needs fresh food, clean water, and a comfortable bed.
- Stick to veterinarian-prescribed pain control in the dosages your vet prescribes. Offer petting and conversation to distract your dog from pain that medications can’t treat.
- Keep your dog warm. Dogs weakened by disease may have trouble maintaining their core body temperature.
- Give your dog a quiet environment. Draw the curtains or close the shutters to make sure they aren’t distracted by a threatening neighborhood dog venturing onto their territory. Make your small children understand that your dog is not available for play. Stay with your dog when a quiet environment is impossible, for example, when fireworks are going off or during a thunderstorm.
- Be patient and calm. Speak in comforting tones. Your dog will be able to read your emotions. If you are upset, your dog will be upset, too. It’s OK to take a strategic retreat from your dog for a few minutes when you can’t handle their condition.
- Stay close to your dog. Be there when you are needed.
Of course, you also need to take care of someone else when your dog is sick: You.
When our dogs get sick, our lives can become emotional roller coasters.
This is a natural reaction, but it can trigger a lot of human anxiety and depression.
The situation can snowball when you have had to miss some other responsibility to your family, or to your job, or just an opportunity to get out of the house.
Most of us take care of our dogs like they were any other family member, but when all your care and devotion aren’t doing your dog any good, it’s time to consider other steps.
Every pet parent should make a real effort to take care of their dying dog in these seven ways, but there comes a time when it is no longer possible to keep your dog comfortable.
If you have done your best in these seven areas, you and your family will be sad, but you won’t need to feel guilty about the next steps.
What Do You Do When You Can No Longer Keep Your Dying Dog Comfortable?
Euthanasia is quick, painless, and readily available, but even when you have decided it is the best option for your dog, there are preparations to make.
What to Tell Your Kids
Most adults have a hard time dealing with the need to put down a dog. For kids, it’s even harder.
For many children, the family dog is the best friend they have ever had. It can be very hard for them to cement their love for their dog by letting him go.
Here are some suggestions for making this reality more bearable.
- Be honest. It’s usually best to let your children know about the possibility of euthanasia as soon as the vet has told you that your dog is terminally ill. It is always better for your children to get the news directly from you, and to give them some to take it in. Hiding the reality of the situation from your children will make the news even more of a blow when the time comes. Lying to your children will make it more difficult for them to trust you after your dog dies.
- Let your children know it is appropriate to feel sad. Make sure that they understand that your dog’s ill health isn’t because of something they did. Start the news with words to the effect of “Mommy and Daddy are sad because….”
- Don’t tell your children that your dog is being “put to sleep.” You don’t want them to associate their own sleep with death. It’s better to say that you are going to end your dog’s pain.
- Avoid excessively euphemistic language. After your dog is gone don’t say he “passed away” or is “gone.” Children may understand you to be saying that your dog will come back. They might even go out and look for their pet themselves.
- If additional explanation is necessary after the fact, be honest about why you euthanized your dog. Tell you children that your dog’s body wasn’t working any more, and you didn’t want your dog to suffer any more pain.
It can help to write down what you intend to say before you have your talk with your children. It can help to prepare yourself for a difficult talk.
What to Do When the Day Comes
There are at-home options for canine euthanasia, but for a number of reasons, we don’t recommend them.
It’s hard to be the person that gives your dog the drug that kills them.
Not every product will work on every dog, and if they don’t, both you and your dog will be suffering even more than before.
It’s best to let a veterinarian make sure that your dog’s final moments are painless and indeed final.
Be sure to give your children an opportunity to say their goodbyes before your take your dog to the vet for euthanasia.
Then, stay with your dog. The vet can give your dog a drug to put them to sleep before giving the euthanasia drug.
This way they drift off to painless sleep before they receive a permanent end to their pain. You can be there to pet and speak to your dog in those final moments as the last goodbye.
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