No one ever forgets the last moments that they spend with their dog. However, the memory of a peaceful death can sometimes be spoiled by the changes that happen after our dogs pass away. Many different things happen in our dogs’ bodies in the moments after death, and whilst they are all normal and natural, some of them can also be distressing. So, what should we expect? Will they simply shut their eyes and drift off to sleep? Or is it likely to be more complicated than that?
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What happens when a dog is euthanased?
In most cases, euthanasia involves giving a dog a large dose of an anaesthetic drug. This will cause them to relax, then become drowsy, and finally to fall asleep. After this, their heart will slow down and then stop altogether. This is painless and feels no different to falling asleep for a normal anaesthetic.
It can take some time for a dog’s body to completely shut down after their heart has stopped. In these moments after they pass away, you can see several changes that might appear alarming. Try not to panic – these are natural changes that happen in the moments after death. Your dog is not deliberately doing any of these things, nor are they aware of what is happening; it is not a sign that they are distressed.
Eyes staying open
If a dog’s eyes are open as they pass away (for example, if they are looking at you) then their eyes often stay slightly open afterwards, though their upper eyelids may droop slightly. This is quite normal, although it can appear unsettling. To understand why a dog’s eyes stay open after they die, we must look at how their body opens or closes the eyes.
There are lots of different muscles around the dog’s eye that control the movement of their eyelid. In order to close the eye, some of these muscles must relax, and others must contract (tense up). Relaxing occurs naturally after a dog passes away, but contraction does not. This means that although the eyelids may droop, they often do not close completely, as your dog no longer orders those muscles to contract.
Sometimes it is possible to gently close your dog’s eyes for them after they have passed away by using two fingers to gently stroke downwards and pull them closed. However, this will not work for all dogs.
Muscles twitching or jerking
Muscle spasms after death are common and can appear as anything from a fine tremor to a whole limb kicking, or even the dog’s back arching upwards or downwards. This does not happen because the dog is deliberately doing this – they are not aware of it at all. It can appear unsettling, but be assured that it is not causing your dog any distress.
In the moments after a dog passes away, you can sometimes see them appear to suddenly take a “gasp” of air. Sometimes this is small, but sometimes this can be a large, deep intake of breath, and can look quite alarming.
Again, try not to panic if you notice this – your dog is not truly trying to breathe. It is usually caused by some leftover electrical activity in the brain. Your dog is not distressed by this, or indeed aware of it at all.
Loss of bladder and bowel control
When your dog’s body relaxes after they pass away, the muscles that control the bladder and bowels will relax, too. If your dog had a full bladder, then it is common for some of the urine to spill out after they have passed away. Again, your dog is not aware that this has happened. So you do not need to worry that it will have stressed them in any way.
Your dog may also pass some stool, although this usually only happens if they had been suffering from diarrhoea. Otherwise, you might notice a smell from gas being released, too.
What happens when a dog passes away naturally?
Many of the changes that happen after death are the same whether a dog passes away naturally, or is euthanased by a vet. However, the experience of nearing and passing into death will be different for a natural death than it will be for euthanasia.
The exact experience will depend on the reason for the dog passing away. Sometimes this can be very quick – similar to euthanasia – but other times it can take hours or even days to happen. Towards the end, your dog may become weak and may pass in and out of consciousness. Their breathing may become irregular, and they may have muscle spasms, similar to those that occur after death. If you feel for their heartbeat, you may find that it gradually slows down before it stops.
Longer experiences like these are often distressing for both you and your dog. Once it is clear that your dog is suffering, it is kinder to opt for euthanasia rather than a “natural” death.
Our dogs’ eyes will often stay open after they pass away. This can be unsettling for us but causes our dogs no distress, so we do not need to worry about it. Similarly, they may also twitch, gasp, or lose control of their bladder and bowels. These are natural things that our dogs are unaware of, and so we should try not to be alarmed by them either. Instead, we can be reassured that, when it comes to euthanasia, our dogs will simply experience a gentle drift into sleep whilst you softly stroke them.