If any of us are facing the end of our time with a beloved canine companion, we may ask, “do dogs know when they are dying?”
Most of us do our best to give our dogs the best and longest lives possible, investing in doggy vitamin supplements, good diets, and plenty of exercise. But even with our best efforts, sooner or later, we will have to say goodbye. Our article on where dogs go when they die covers views from different faiths. But you may have many questions if you are struggling to say goodbye to a feisty Chihuahua or have come to terms with a Great Dane’s short life expectancy.
So let’s look at what dogs understand about death and if they know that they, too, may one day come to an end.
Do dogs know when they are dying?
The question of whether dogs know when they are about to die is a complex one, and there is no definitive answer. Many factors affect a dog’s understanding of the concept of death and passing, including the dog’s age, intelligence, and other individual experiences. Dogs may also understand grief, loss, and their own suffering but not necessarily understand death as we do.
For instance, an older dog may better understand the concept of death than a puppy, as it has had time to observe and understand the passing of other pets and humans.
Similarly, a very attached and perceptive dog may have been able to detect subtle changes in its human family – such as when someone is ill or appears to be in distress. So they may have some concept of the danger of death.
On the other hand, the concept of death may be something totally foreign to a young puppy or a dog that has grown up away from humans. In this instance, the dog may not be aware of or understand the concept of death until it directly affects them.
Moreover, it is unlikely that they can understand the finality and complete cessation of life associated with death.
Most experts believe that the word “know” is too loaded to accurately apply to a dog’s understanding of death. While dogs display traits of grief when a companion passes away, it is unclear if they understand death or are just reacting to the energy and actions of their human or canine companions.
But let’s look closer at the basic concepts dogs need to understand to know if they are dying.
Dogs need a sense of self to know they are dying
The first thing that dogs need to understand their own mortality is to be self-aware and have a sense of themselves as something separate. Originally, scientists did not think dogs could be self-aware, as they failed the mirror test and could not recognize themselves in the mirror. However, this does not mean dogs are not self-aware, only that do have a concept of self the same way we do.
The first reason dogs don’t recognize themselves is that sight is not their primary sense the way it is for most of us. Dogs have no trouble recognizing and identifying their own scent because their nose is much more important to them than their eyes, which develop last in puppies.
So dogs have no reason to think about what they look like and recognize themselves in the mirror when their nose tells them all they need to know about themselves. New studies also show that dogs know where their paws end and the world begins.
So while dogs may not be able to think of themselves as existing the same way humans do, they do have a sense of self-awareness.
This video below seems to show Bunny the dog grappling with the idea of who and what she is:
Dogs need to understand death to know they are dying
So we know dogs have some idea of their own existence as an entity with their own needs, wants, and, most importantly, the smell! But do they know about death? This is where it gets tricky because it boils down to what they understand about death and if they realize it applies to them.
It is believed that dogs understand the concept of death through their surroundings and our reactions to loss. It is likely that they can deduce that death is a part of life, even if they do not fully comprehend the concept. Also, dogs may have a canine understanding of death that just differs from the human one.
A big point to note is that dogs can detect subtle changes in a grieving home.
Loss affects us all physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Physical symptoms include loss of appetite, flat energy, and an inability to concentrate, while emotional symptoms include sadness, anxiety, loneliness, and grief. Our behavior or actions may become uncharacteristic, as well.
Evidence suggests that dogs also grieve the loss of people and other pets.
Although, whether or not a dog has the capacity to understand death is related to their cognitive abilities and the relationship they have with their humans. Cognitive abilities vary from dog to dog. It is likely that dogs, like other animals, can recognize death and the finality associated with it. This can be particularly true when it comes to their owners.
It is common for dogs to exhibit behavioral changes when a human companion passes away. While this may not necessarily constitute grieving, behavior can include:
- searching and vocalizing,
- seeming depressed and refusing food,
- sleeping or pacing more,
- or even acting out or engaging in destructive behaviors.
These symptoms are very similar to those seen in humans and suggest that animals may understand the concept of death and its finality. In fact, it’s not unknown for dogs to die of heartbreak after losing their owner. This is actually not uncommon, as in the case of Nero, the French Bulldog who passed away only 15 minutes after his owner.
These symptoms are very similar to those seen in humans and suggest that animals may understand the concept of death and its finality.
Our canine companions also may recognize a change in the energy or mood of their owners and the loss of the bond that existed between them. In fact, studies also show that dogs know to comfort the grieving, sick, and dying. So it is very possible that some experienced dogs do have some kind of understanding that death means a kind of loss.
Dogs need to understand that they will also die
If dogs are aware of their own existence and they have an awareness of grief, loss, and death, then they need to do a bit of math that most dogs likely can’t do; that they themselves will die. To understand this idea the way that humans do, dogs need language and words.
Without language to deal with the complicated idea of one’s mortality, it’s unlikely that dogs have a complete idea that they are dying. However, they don’t need one. They can perceive their own pain, suffering, loss of sight, weakness, and other symptoms of their bodies giving way.
Another point to remember is that they still have their most powerful senses. Many dogs can smell cancer, so there is no reason to think that dogs with cancer (at least some of them) know that something is wrong. They may also know other things about their health, as their sense of smell is so strong they can pick up on the tiniest changes in their body chemistry.
This doesn’t mean that they know when they are dying, only that they may have some awareness that something is wrong. However, dogs live in the moment, and dwelling on their own death is not a very doggy thing to do. It is more likely that as they grow weaker or sicker, they do not think about it so much as they naturally accept the process of fading away without question.
Do Dogs Say Goodbye When They Die?
While it isn’t proven by science, many dog owners and lovers believe their dogs try to say goodbye when they die. Many people report their sick or dying dogs waiting for them to come home from a trip or from college before passing away. Other owners may have had the experience of their dog seeking them out in their final moments or coming to lay next to them before they pass.
Do dogs know they are loved?
Dogs usually know when they are loved. Dogs are designed to be extremely perceptive when it comes to human behavior. Because they have evolved so closely to us, their survival usually depends on whether a human loves them. This means they’re highly attuned to subtle cues from us, like our facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, indicating whether we love them.
Do dogs look for their owners before they die?
Dogs often look for their owners before they die. Many vets report that dogs about to be euthanized become noticeably distressed if their owner leaves the room. This is one reason we should always try to be with our dogs when they pass. Studies also show that dogs look to humans to help them with problems they can’t solve, so it’s natural for them to come to their owners when they are in distress and even death.
Why do dogs go off to die alone?
Not all dogs go to their humans for comfort when they are dying. Sometimes their instinct to find somewhere isolated takes over. This is a relic from behavior in the wild. When an animal is sick or injured, they do not want to be out in the open, where they are vulnerable to predators. So they look for dark, isolated places to hide and hopefully recover.
Do dogs suffer when they die?
If dogs are conscious while sick or injured, they often suffer. This is why euthanasia is best practice at a certain point when a dog no longer has any quality of life. When vets put a dog out, they use an overdose of phenobarbital to put the dog to sleep and stop their breathing gently. The dog drifts off this way and does not suffer.
If you have tissues available, you can see this video of a dog peacefully being put to sleep while playing with their owner. But be warned, this may not be good for sensitive viewers.
13 Signs a dog is dying, and it may be time to say goodbye
Suppose you suspect your dog is dying and there is no longer anything you and your veterinarian can do to help them. In that case, it’s important to keep them comfortable with pain and other medication and perform frequent quality-of-life checks. Quality-of-life checks by your veterinarian help establish if your dog is in pain, suffering, able to move, or able to enjoy food or any activity.
These can help you make the difficult decision when the time comes. Other signs a dog is dying include:
- Loss of appetite.
- Labored breathing.
- Excessive panting or drooling.
- Abnormal posture, lethargy, or reluctance to move.
- Loss of coordination.
- Changes in vocalization.
- Loss of bladder or bowel control.
- Weakness or stiffness of limbs.
- Dulling of eyes.
- Excessive thirst.
- Unusual odor.
- Changes in behavior or interaction with people.
Dogs may not understand when they are dying the exact same way humans do, but they certainly do know when they are fading away and may seek us out for comfort. It is vital that we are there for our dogs in this difficult time and do everything we can to make this final transition easier.
Tamsin De La HarpeAuthor
Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.
Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.