There is a period towards the very end of every dog’s life that no owner really wants to face. After all, who wants to think of their pet suffering a terminal illness in pain or distress? Being prepared for this time means you can do the best you can for your dog during this difficult stage. Helping them through it with dignity and comfort. Your vet can work with you to help you make the most of your dog’s final weeks and guide you through some of the worries you might have.

This article considers the common signs that suggest end of life or terminal illness in your dog; what you can do to help them, and how you’ll know when it’s the right time to finally say goodbye.

Common signs of end of life illness in dogs

The most common signs suggesting an end-of-life condition in dogs are unexplained and prolonged changes in a dog’s behaviour, appetite or physical condition. Dogs are driven by their natural instincts to carry on with their daily routine as best they can. So a loss of interest in food or their favourite activities lasting more than a few days is always concerning.

An unexplained change in a dog’s behaviour 

If lasting more than a few days, this raises suspicion of a serious – or even end-of-life – illness. This change may be quite noticeable, such as profound listlessness, a loss of interest in walks or play activities, or not greeting guests or other dogs as usual. There can also be subtle changes. Including being unsettled (particularly at night), pacing around the house, or changes to toileting, feeding, or drinking patterns. Sometimes a dog’s temperament may change. They may become withdrawn or distant, although some will be clingier or needier than normal. A few may become quite short-tempered, especially when being handled or moved.

Dietary changes are also common.

Typically, this involves a loss of appetite and thirst. Although the actual change depends on the underlying illness and may vary as the condition progresses. For example, dogs with cancer may initially be hungrier but lose weight, only for their appetite to wane as the disease worsens. Dogs with liver or kidney disease, on the other hand, will drink more but experience a progressive loss of appetite, or eat well one day but very little the next.

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Some dogs may suffer vomiting or diarrhoea or become less tolerant of certain foods, while an increase in thirst means more frequent toilet trips. A prolonged loss of appetite and thirst also causes weakness, lethargy, depression and nausea. So keeping a dog eating helps their mental and physical wellbeing. Dogs that don’t eat or drink anything for more than 24 hours deteriorate rapidly and need urgent medical attention.

Many dogs with terminal illnesses experience physical changes

Dramatic changes in weight or breathing patterns are the most concerning, especially if they occur rapidly, but mobility issues, such as stiffness, or wobbliness, are more common.

Prolonged change to your dog’s daily routine, appetite, or appearance doesn’t always mean a serious illness, but should always be checked by your vet.

Helping your dog with an end-of-life illness

End-of-life changes can be distressing for dogs and their owners, but they are often not beyond help. Consulting your vet early on will provide reassurance and give your dog the greatest range of options, keeping them comfortable for as long as possible.

Multimodal management

Many end-of-life illnesses require a multi-faceted response, covering medication, dietary adjustments and environment adaptation. Your vet will guide you through the options and help you find the best solution for your dog. They can also help you plan for your dog’s final days and discuss the options available to you when their illness no longer responds to treatment.  As some progress quicker than expected, it is helpful to have an idea early on of what you will do when that moment comes. 

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Medical treatment

Medication will limit the effects of your dog’s end-of-life illness. As these conditions are not curable, treatment is palliative – aimed at slowing the progression of your dog’s condition and lessening its impact on them. In most cases, there are a range of treatments that your vet will be able to recommend. The main aim is to keep your dog comfortable and there are many safe and effective painkillers which can be used on their own, or in combination as your dog’s condition progresses.

Other medication may be prescribed to support your dog’s vital functions, reduce nausea or stimulate their appetite. If appropriate, your vet will recommend a special diet to help your dog; they may also recommend changing how they are fed. Smaller, more frequent, meals are often better tolerated. Warming the food makes it tastier, while feeding from an elevated position is more comfortable for infirm dogs.

Management issues

Dogs in the final stage of their lives often find their surroundings more challenging. Managing stairs, getting in and out of the house or car, walking on laminate – these can all be difficult, especially for larger dogs. Dogs with blindness, deafness or dementia will become confused more easily. Changed toileting patterns make these problems worse. 

This can create anxiety, discomfort or distress, but some simple changes will help. For example, ramps make getting in and out of the house or car easier while baby gates create safe areas and prevent falls. Using a sling or a towel under your dog’s tummy will improve their confidence getting up and about and make toilet breaks easier for them. Providing rugs or runners on laminate flooring helps them find their footing and makes them feel secure. Infirm dogs also spend more time sleeping and lying down. To prevent bed sores make sure they are turned regularly and sleeping areas are well cushioned.

Company

Companionship is also important. Infirm dogs realise they are no longer as capable as they were, which makes them feel vulnerable. They also depend on other members of their household for their daily needs, comfort and security. Altering your daily routine so that your dog doesn’t spend too long on its own will make them happier and more relaxed. Creating a ‘den’ for them to sleep in, using a dog appeasing pheromone diffuser or other calming remedies recommended by your vet can also help. 

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Knowing when the time is right to finally say goodbye

A common concern from owners is knowing when the right time has come to finally say goodbye to their dog. In the event, this is often easier than expected. The aim of palliative treatment is to maintain your dog’s quality of life for as long as possible. So the right time to let them go is when they are no longer enjoying their daily routine. Since you know your dog best, you will be able to judge this moment better than anyone. But your vet can guide you if you are unsure and when the time comes, they will do all they can to help your dog pass peacefully and with dignity.