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Do Dogs Know When They Are Dying?

Barking at Heaven’s Door: Do Dogs Know When They Are Dying?

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Nobody wants to think about death, especially not the death of their pets.

But it’s an inevitability of dog ownership: someday, your pup isn’t going to be here anymore.

With an average lifespan of 8 to 11 years, a dog certainly has plenty of time to run, play, make friends and be loved. A happy dog doesn’t have a care in the world, let alone a preoccupation with mortality.

But when their time is up, many dogs seem to understand it somehow.

Countless stories exist of dogs who let their owners know when they’re entering their final moments. They appear to have some sort of sixth sense, be it supernatural or physiological, that tells them they’re about to die.

What could explain this phenomenon?

Do dogs actually know when they’re dying? If not, what could account for the altered behaviors and apparent communication with their owners?

We may never know for sure what goes on in a dog’s brain, but what we do understand tells us a lot about this sad yet fascinating concept.

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A Dog’s Pre-Death Behavior

Dog's Pre-Death Behavior

Across all the tales of dogs who let their humans know they’re going to die, a few patterns clearly emerge.

In their final hours, dogs usually follow one of two paths. They become extremely needy and desperate to be close to loved ones… or they withdraw and hide away.

Their Last Loving Moments

As death draws near, be it from illness or old age, dogs often take a turn for the worse.

They become less active, often remaining in one place all day, uninterested in their surroundings. Mobility may worsen, making walking difficult and jumping and running impossible.

Appetite for both food and play decreases and, in some cases, disappears altogether. It can seem like your dog is just a shell of his former self, visibly similar but sapped of spirit.

And then, all of a sudden, things change again.

A dog may wake his owners up by jumping onto their bed, although he hasn’t jumped in weeks. He can seem desperate for touch and affection, seeking out cuddles from as many people as he can find.

For a moment, it can seem like maybe death isn’t coming after all. There’s a spark of new life in the dog that ignites a spark of hope in his owners.

But the next day, he’s gone.

It’s a story reported time and time again by dog owners around the world. Dogs seem to know when it’s their time, and they put everything they’ve got left into one last hurrah before passing on.

A Bittersweet Ending

Dog knows if he is dying

Despite the dog’s renewed liveliness, some owners say that something feels off during those final loving moments.

Often, it’s a look of sadness in the dog’s eyes or an unusual persistence and desperation in the dog’s attempts at closeness. The dog may wake his human up to cuddle in the middle of the night despite never having done so before.

It’s not the same “just because” affection that healthy dogs show their owners. This affection is far more urgent and occurs without consideration for time, place or other circumstances.

It lends credence to the theory that dogs know when they’re going to die. And they’ll go to any lengths to make sure they get to say goodbye before they go.

Hiding Away at the End

Conversely, other dogs seem to want nothing to do with their owners at the very ends of their lives.

Their conditions deteriorate to the point that they stop eating and don’t move around much. And then, one day, they’re nowhere to be found.

These dogs prefer to die hidden and alone, whether for their own comfort or for that of their loved ones.

They may retreat to a dark, quiet corner of the house, lie down and never get up again. Others may try to get outside and, if successful, take off and find a place to spend their final moments alone.

Some scientists believe that this behavior is a relic passed down to the dog by centuries of ancestors.

A dying wolf would have trouble keeping up with the rest of the pack. To slow the group down would put them at a higher risk of attack and cause them to miss out on hunting opportunities.

Additionally, a dying wolf with a contagious illness could make the rest of the pack sick. It might separate itself from the group in order to ensure the others’ continued health.

So your dog might think he’s doing you a favor by isolating himself during his final hours. He doesn’t want to slow you down, and he doesn’t understand that all you want to do is be there for him.

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A Sixth Sense?

Dog knows when she is dying

It seems clear from these behavior patterns that even if dogs don’t know that they’re dying, they know that something’s not right.

Some might attribute this to a sixth sense of sorts — the ability to detect death and other abstract concepts.

But it may actually have something to do with one of the five senses we know about: smell.

Over 100 million scent receptors make the dog’s nose one of the most powerful in the world. They certainly make it the dog’s most powerful organ, and the way he perceives most of the world.

Dogs pick up smells we can’t even begin to imagine. And it’s thought that one of those smells is the smell of imminent death.

In hospice centers, dogs have been shown to gravitate towards those who are about to die, often predicting their deaths days or hours before they occur.

It’s also thought that dogs can smell various illnesses, including several types of cancers. They can smell cancer markers in sweat, urine and skin concentrated as low as 1 part per trillion.

So it’s not out of the question that dogs can use their noses to detect when their bodies are about to give out. Their blood levels and bodily functions may change just enough for their scent receptors to pick up the clues.

A Matter of Brain Function

Dogs brain function

Another potential explanation for dogs’ pre-death behaviors: they’re the result of cognitive dysfunction.

Old age brings about many psychological and neurological changes, including dementia, loss of motor skills and confusion. An elderly dog’s brain may deteriorate to the point of causing erratic behaviors — like insatiable cuddling or running away.

Various illnesses also have cognitive impacts. Cancer, for instance, can spread to the brain, causing tumors that interrupt normal functioning and alter behavior.

This explanation could account for some of the behaviors that we perceive as death-sensing. But that raises more questions: why do these behaviors repeat themselves across so many different dogs with different health conditions?

And why do they only occur so markedly when death is imminent?

Much more research is needed into dog cognition and the brain in general before we can truly answer these questions.

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And even then, we may never know for sure whether a dog truly knows when it’s about to die.

What we do have are thousands of anecdotes from grieving dog owners that indicate a pattern of pre-death behaviors.

From these anecdotes, it seems clear that, whether or not they can truly conceptualize death, dogs know that something big is happening as they approach the end of life. And it also seems clear that when they sense that big change, it’s us — their loved ones — that they think of first.

Last update on 2020-08-08

Random Dog Quote:

16 thoughts on “Barking at Heaven’s Door: Do Dogs Know When They Are Dying?”

  1. This was a lot to read. I just want to say, they do know. My baby girl Baby, she was laying in my arms and lap. She looked deep in my eyes, licked my tears on my right cheek and laid her head on my chest, and went to heaven. She didn’t like to go to the vets office, but that day she wasn’t like she normally was, when I sat on the floor she laid in my lap, she knew. Her uterus ripped. She was 14 years old, so even if you don’t have the money find it and get your dog fixed, nothing else was wrong with her.

  2. As a child growing up, our three dogs were our constant companions. Each had their own personality, Dutchess: intelligent, bilingual, our guardian, Fritz: not too bright, skittish, but affectionate, Spanky, the spoiled baby of the bunch, refusing any and all attempts at learning tricks.
    As they aged, they let us know in their own way when their time was near. Dutchess, who was so well behaved, never pulling on her leash, never even flinching at toddlers climbing on her, trying to ride her like a pony, suddenly bolted while on a walk and tried to jump off a 15 foot drop off. The only way I could describe it was that she was trying to commit suicide. Later that day, she became incontinent, started passing blood, and less than 12 hours later, had to be euthanized. She knew. And it broke my heart she knew.

  3. My dog just got tired over months, accepted all the care he needed, but just got weaker and weaker until his body just timed out. The vet saw him regular over those 6 months, weekly at the end, and said he was in no pain, just getting weaker with organ breakdown. It was sad, but he acted the same just wanting to be in the same room and laying nearby. He accepted the need to be carried outside and back in. He just fell asleep one last time and died a few minutes later. It was nice in that we did not have to make a decision to have him euthanized.

  4. I just had to put my perfect, precious boy down because he was so sick and my vet said it was time. I am hurting so much and don’t care if I ever get another dog. No dog could ever replace the amazing boy. Not handling the loss very well. He got so slow and had so many health issues in the end. I too believe he knew it was his time even tho I did not want to let him go.

    1. I’m so sorry for your loss.. Thats what I am going thru now, is that I don’t want to let him go

    2. Jackie, no other can ever replace your boy, ever. In honor of him, try to love another dog/pet. Your boy was a reflection of your love. Yes, it pains the soul to lose our babies but we owe it to them to keep the love and caretaking going. I have felt just like you, it’s hard, really hard. I have found that getting a new pet maybe two helps heal the soul and you help another dog/pet. Our pets bring much joy to our lives and each one teaches us, too. My condolences to you and I hope you reconsider.

    3. Am going through the exact same thing. Just put our own dog down 2 days ago. He just deteriorated over the last couple of months. Couldn’t get up , couldn’t do his business probably and had problems walking. Liver tumors were the culprit. He’s everywhere. In our house, the fields we walked over with him , it’s extremely difficult. We will never get another dog. There was only 1 Scooby

  5. Because of this Pandemic, my Mom decided to buy 2 puppies and I grew fond of them as days pass by. I can say I am close to them and I even name them after the 5year old kids in Hospital Playlist, Mone, and Moje. I can really say that they know when they are dying, My baby Mone who is only 4 months old has sad eyes that scream death as he was suffering from a famous puppy virus that is caused by a rat. He lays down on my hand and looks at me sadly. We prepare him a comfortable darkroom for him to hid and sleep but he insists on transfer below our cabinet. We found him dead as we were about to let him drink his medicine water. I feel so sad and devastated for what has happened, my whole world collapsed and I can’t unsee all the corners of our house without remembering my puppy walking or playing. I miss him so much. I want to hug him tighter and never let him go. I love you baby Mone! I hope you are doing great up there! We love you so much Corgi doggo! Soar High my baby!

    1. 2019 We loss our girl dog that we had for thirteen years early this morning we loss our boy dog of twelve years. I’m still crying just can’t believe he is gone he stop eating start hiding last night my husband took him out to use it came back in he made this loud yelp sound took two deep breath and he was gone. WOW OUR HEARTS ARE CRUSHED

  6. Yes they know, they get slower and they know, something is different to them, they also hide their pain for survival tactics. My dog showed signs of something being wrong yet wouldn’t show this when at the vet 3 times, which is why she was misdiagnosed, especially if you have a strong breed; pit bull, German Shepard etc… They also change their behavior, they will do things differently than they used to and then may change back hours or days before their passing. They have a bucket list and want to do and go to places they liked, this can be a sign in itself of slowing down, aging. You always figure this out later when they have passed, but I think as humans we always know when something is wrong with our dogs but to protect ourselves we become in denial, it’s hard to face the reality of losing such an unconditionally loving animal companion. When I had to put my best friend down weeks ago, I made sure when I saw her for the last time, that I wasn’t a mess, crying, this can put them in distress, hold it together until they pass, then cry your eyes out later. They will be fine, no pain, but we have to deal with the after math on planet earth. Tell them how great they were, how much fun you had and that they will be with their other friends who’ve passed on and one day will meet you in the light when the time it right. Hope this helps. Oh and get another dog, all the memories and years of fun is so worth it, save another rescue dog if you can, they need homes. Wait some time and mourn but not too long so you don’t get depressed. The first dog is the hardest when you lose them, but believe me it gets better and you know their time isn’t forever and you just enjoy whatever time you have with them, make them have triple the life. My heart goes out to all of you who’ve lost an animal companion during this most difficult Covid-19 fiasco. Be good to yourself! I cannot live without another dog can you? Best. ST

  7. My dog Jackson passed in early May. He just turned 12 and kidney failure marked his passing.

    Waited a couple months to get our new puppy Betty.

    I still grieve the loss of my dog but, the puppy has filled the void of a new best friend.

    Had dogs all my life. The hardest part of having a dog is saying goodbye.

    I thought he had a couple more years, being healthy till the end but we both knew his time here was coming to an end.

    We were close to the end

  8. Maybe there was only one Scooby-Doo, but there are thousands in shelters, on the streets, or otherwise in need.
    You could help save one, and in so doing, start healing.

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