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Pet Euthanasia

Can I Let My Dog Die Naturally?

A natural death is one that occurs as a result of the disease process or failure of one or more major body systems. It is important to note that a natural death can be assisted or unassisted. Join us as we explore both, discuss the stages of natural death, and an alternative way to say 'goodbye' to your dog.

Dr. Bethany Hsia

March 31, 2024

Much like the process of birth, the dying process is highly unique and varies depending on factors such as the underlying health condition, age, breed, and individual circumstances of each dog. As unpleasant as it can be to think about the end of a beloved companion’s life, understanding the stages and potential timeline of the natural dying process can help families to know what to expect should they choose to allow a natural death for their dog. If you are considering a natural death for your dog, please speak with your veterinarian in advance to ensure your pet will have access to treatments to combat pain, nausea, anxiety, and other symptoms, to prevent suffering as they move through the process.

What Is Natural Death In A Dog?

A natural death is one that occurs as a result of the disease process or failure of one or more major body systems. It is important to note that a natural death can be assisted or unassisted.

An unassisted death will vary widely depending on the disease process at play but will likely involve great suffering. In the wild, animals who are reaching the end of their life won’t usually have the opportunity to die from their body failing. More often, they succumb to dehydration or exposure, if not predation. For a pet that is sheltered from such agents of Mother Nature, death can occur more slowly but also with prolonged suffering. This is not a humane option.

An assisted natural death is one where a patient can be kept reasonably comfortable and their symptoms can be managed while they move through the dying process. Such care is usually referred to as hospice or palliative care, where the goal of treatment is comfort rather than cure. It is important to note that not all diseases allow for this type of palliated death. For example, if the pet is suffering from a disease that affects the respiratory system, such as Congestive Heart Failure, or one that bears a risk of bleeding out, such as a ruptured Hemangiosarcoma, a palliated natural dying process is not a humane option.

What are the Stages of A Natural Death In A Dog?

There are three general stages of natural death that a dog will experience. However, they are not always distinct, stages may overlap and may progress at different rates depending on the individual dog’s circumstances.

Pre-Active Phase: The pre-active phase refers to the period leading up to the active dying process. During this stage, dogs may exhibit subtle changes in behavior and physical condition. They may become more withdrawn, lose interest in activities they once enjoyed, experience changes in appetite, show signs of fatigue, weakness, or restlessness, and have difficulty maintaining normal bodily functions. The duration of this phase can vary from a few days to several weeks.

Active Dying Phase: The active dying phase is characterized by more pronounced changes in a dog’s physical and mental state as organ functions fail and toxins build-up in the blood. Dogs receiving palliative care may not display pronounced signs of this stage but the unassisted death of a beloved dog can be very difficult to witness. Dogs in this phase may display symptoms such as extreme weakness, difficulty breathing, decreased responsiveness, disorientation, loss of bladder and bowel control, nausea, vomiting, and unregulated body temperature. Dogs in the active dying phase may also experience seizures or uncontrolled muscular activity. This phase may also include barking or vocalizing without an obvious cause or intent to communicate. The active dying phase typically lasts for a few hours to a couple of days.

Terminal Breath Phase: The terminal breath phase is the final stage of the dying process in dogs. During this phase, breathing patterns may become irregular, shallow, or labored. The dog may take long pauses between breaths or experience periods of rapid breathing. This phase can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.

Is My Dog Dying?

An Alternative To Natural Death

Because the stages of the natural dying process can occur at practically any interval many families decide that they would prefer their dog to have a more controlled end of life experience. Euthanasia can afford families the benefit of knowing when and how long the process will take place as well as providing a smooth transition for the pet.

Euthanasia puts an end to the dying process by hastening a humane death in a controlled manner. Veterinarians are able to administer a combination of medications that place the dying dog in a calm, restful state and truncate the stages of natural death.

While most families wish for this kind of passing for their dog, it is understandably difficult to take steps toward planning a euthanasia for a beloved pet.

The First Step Toward Euthanasia: Assessing Your Dog’s Quality of Life

When considering euthanasia for your dog, it is helpful to take stock of their quality of life in an objective manner. This may be easier said than done. Begin by honestly asking yourself:

  • Is my dog still eating and drinking? If they can’t eat or drink on their own, can I provide a way for them to eat or drink comfortably?
  • Are they still able to enjoy the same activities and social interactions with me and other pets in our household?
  • Is my dog comfortable; able to move about to urinate or defecate in appropriate places, and able to rest without experiencing pain?
  • What is the quantity of their good days; are they having more good days than bad?

If you’re still unsure, using tools like CodaPet's Quality of Life scale to assess your dog’s overall physical and mental well-being will generate a numerical value you can track over a period of time. Another way to measure change over time is to take and review videos of your dog as they go about their daily activities.

However, if your answers to the above questions are “no”, then it’s probably time to consider what is most important to you regarding end-of-life care for your dog. Will you provide palliative or hospice care to support your pet as they move through the dying process? Will you arrange for euthanasia and if so what type of goodbye will best suit your family? How will you memorialize your pet and honor their memory? There aren’t right and wrong answers here, the important thing is to discuss your options with your veterinarian and formulate a plan that you are comfortable with.

The decision to pursue at-home euthanasia for your dying dog is a deeply personal and challenging one. By considering factors such as your dog’s quality of life, emotional well-being, and the support available to you, you can make an informed decision that is most appropriate for both yourself and your pet.


Dr. Bethany graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 2010. After graduation, she moved west. Dr. Bethany spent a year at a small animal exclusive practice in Washington state, where she was first introduced to in-home euthanasia.  Read More

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