Skip to main content

PawTracks may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

How to tell if your older dog’s health decline means the end is near

Signs your old pup is close to the end-of-life period

An old dog with a white muzzle gazes up into the camera.
Helena Lopes/Pexels

If you’ve stumbled across this article after searching terms like “old dog behavior before death,” we are so sorry for your situation. There’s nothing we want more than for our fur babies to live forever. Unfortunately, death is a part of life we all must face, and the loss of a pet is a major trauma because of the tight bonds we form with our fur babies.

Knowing death’s a part of life doesn’t make the loss of a pet any easier — it can be as difficult as losing a human family member. Despite the many ways we can try to grieve once our beloved pet has passed, it can be helpful to know the end is near. Here’s what you should look for if you suspect your dog may be nearing the end of the road.  

An old Great Dane with a white face leaning against a man's side.

What are the signs of a dog dying of old age?

According to Leesville Animal Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, very few dogs pass away from old age itself and not an underlying condition. In any event, there are signs you should be aware of as your beloved pooch begins his final transition. Your dog may experience some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Refusal to drink water
  • Pronounced fatigue
  • Loss of interest in favorite toys or people
  • Extreme lethargy
  • Lack of coordination
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Restlessness
  • Confusion
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Decreased respirations
  • Incontinence
  • Muscle spasms or twitching
  • Hiding
  • Sudden desire to be with you at all times

In many cases, these symptoms will come on gradually. Several months to several weeks before your dog passes, they may stop grooming, lose weight, drink less, and experience digestive upset. Your dog’s coat and eyes may become dull. Roughly one month before your dog passes, you may notice a drastic change in their weight, a loss of interest in activities, changes in breathing, eye problems, and skin conditions. Some dogs may begin to self-isolate during this time, while others become needy.

During your dog’s final days, they will lose interest in eating, drinking, and playing. They may appear to stare off into space and become unusually still. Other dogs become restless and pace or twitch. Behavioral changes are also common during the last few days of life. Your dog may also experience incontinence, extreme weight loss, and loss of coordination.

A portrait of a senior Rhodesian Ridgeback dog looking to the side.
Anke van Wyk / Shutterstock

How long does it take for dogs to pass away naturally?

If your dog is showing signs of slowing down due to old age, it’s only natural to wonder what happens next. From wondering how much more time you have with your beloved fur baby to wondering how long the decline will take, a plethora of questions springs to mind when your dog is ailing. Unfortunately, we can’t give you any concrete answers, but we can provide you with a general timeline of what happens when your dog is nearing the end of life.

The end-of-life period can last days, weeks, or even months. Here are things to look out for if you have a senior dog, especially if your dog suffers from health problems.

  • 3 months prior to passing: Your dog’s eyes may become dull, and you’ll most likely begin to notice changes in his coat’s appearance. Some dogs may begin to shed much more than normal. Digestive issues such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may begin.
  • 3 weeks prior to passing: Additional weight loss is common at this stage. Symptoms like breathing problems, discomfort, behavioral changes, and anxiety could develop. Many dogs begin grooming less often.
  • 3 days prior to passing: Some dogs become distant and lose interest in their surroundings, while others become clingy. Restlessness is common. Your dog may lose control of his bladder and bowels.

Only you and your veterinarian can decide the best course of action for your beloved pet as the end draws near. Remember to treat yourself gently at this time. You’re making the best possible decision you can for a cherished member of your family.

Old terrier with a gray muzzle

How to care for a dog at the end of his life

Whether your dog has been ill for a period of time or their advanced age has finally caught up to them, you’ll want to do everything in your power to keep your dog comfortable during their last few days. While saying goodbye to a beloved pet is always difficult, here are a few ways you can help keep them comfortable at the end of his life. 

Make sure your dog has a comfortable bed

Your dog’s ability to regulate their temperature decreases with age, so make sure they have a cozy place to sleep. If your dog’s temperature is low, warm a few blankets or towels in the dryer to give them an added boost of warmth. Similarly, your dog may be prone to overheating. Panting and bright red gums are indicative of a dog who can’t stay cool. Try popping their blanket in the freezer until it’s cool to the touch, and make sure they have access to cold water if they’re thirsty. Your vet may also recommend giving them water via a syringe. 

Give your dog food he can easily chew

If your pooch still has an appetite, make sure to keep their favorite canned food on hand. Many veterinarians recommend watering down wet food or mixing it with broth. You can also give them plain chicken and rice if dry kibble upsets their stomach. Now is the time to let your pup eat as many of their favorite treats as they want.

Let your dog set the tone

As much as you want to be with them during their final moments, some dogs are more comfortable being alone. Don’t crowd your dog if they choose to retreat to their favorite corner. If they prefer to be with you at all times, let them get as close as they want and enjoy his company.  

Discuss medication with your veterinarian

If your dog is in pain, talk to your vet about medication that can help alleviate their discomfort. 

Have an end-of-life plan

No matter how much you want to avoid thinking about it, preparing for your dog’s final days in advance will make the process less complicated. Discuss your options with your vet, and have contact information on hand to make burial or cremation arrangements. 

A chocolate brown Labrador retriever with a white face.

Coping with pet loss

There is no “normal” way to grieve. You may feel angry, heartbroken, or even numb after your dog passes. Don’t let anyone tell you that your beloved fur baby was “only a dog,” and don’t let others rush you through the grieving process. Reach out to family and friends, join a pet loss support group, or contact a therapist who can help you get through your loss. Mourning the loss of a pet is never easy, and it’s unfair that their lives are so short, but your memories of your beloved fur baby will last a lifetime. 

Editors' Recommendations

Mary Johnson
Mary Johnson is a writer and photographer from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her work has been published in PawTracks and…
Is your dog’s breathing problems old age or something else? What to know
Signs to watch out for if your senior dog has respiratory issues
A gray-faced, old cocker spaniel smiles at the camera

It's hard to watch the beloved family dog get older. Often, advanced age is accompanied by new medical conditions, and it’s difficult for the untrained observer to determine what is a serious problem and what is simply a part of aging. You might notice an increase in dog breathing problems in old age, which can be especially tricky.

Is your senior pup just panting from the heat, or is something more sinister happening? Keep reading to learn more about the types of abnormal breathing to watch for, the causes of dogs' breathing problems in old age, and some tips for easing your pup’s troubles.

Read more
How to make a dog poop quickly when dealing with constipation – at-home remedies
Safe and effective ways to help a dog beat constipation
A person in a black T-shirt and jeans walks a small white and brown dog on a path lined with tall plants with yellow flowers

Ah, the glamours of pet parenthood. Poop bags and potty training -- it all becomes a normal part of life, but what happens when your fur baby is battling a bout of constipation? More often than not, it resolves itself after a few days, but if it persists, you may want to step in to help your four-legged friend get things moving again.
It may be TMI, but it's sometimes necessary. There are plenty of foods that will have the desired effect, or you can opt for a gentle supplement, medication, or even lifestyle changes.
Here’s how to make a dog poop quickly — you know, under desperate circumstances. Good luck, and don’t forget the air freshener.

These are the ways to make a dog poop quickly — safely and from home
While some remedies are safe to try from home, others should be done only by a veterinary professional — don’t worry, we’ll specify which is which.

Read more
Could it be a dog paw infection? Signs, symptoms, and treatments for these pesky, painful issues
Dog paw infection 101: How to avoid and treat this problem
Dog paws on a wood slab

It's hard not to relish daily walks with your dog. You both get fresh air and much-needed exercise, and seeing your dog explore and discover the world is oh-so-fun. Afterward, you and your pup might even engage in a cozy snuggle session on the couch. What could be better?
Dogs also walk in small amounts at home, whether during a play session or a trip to the backyard, and paw health is essential to keep them comfortable and walking. If one or more of your dog’s paws gets injured or infected, mobility can be tricky, painful, and sometimes impossible. As a pet parent, the last thing you want is to see your fur baby in pain. Injuries might be inevitable, but understanding the causes, signs, and treatment for a dog paw infection can ensure your pet gets the proper care as soon as possible. After all, early detection and treatment can prevent the condition from getting worse.
Here’s what you need to know.

What causes a dog paw infection? You can help your pup avoid paw discomfort if you know what to look for
As much as we'd like to give you an easy answer, several factors can contribute to a paw infection. Here are a few common ones.

Read more