Part 2: The Act of Dying: What to Expect

The process of dying is a natural one, much like the act of giving birth. The body prepares itself for the event, sometimes months in advance. In Part 2 of this blog series, I will share with you what I have learned to expect in the months, weeks, and hours approaching death.

One interesting thing I would like to note is that if you have experienced the passing of a human loved one like a parent or grandparent, the process may show some similarities in your pet.

Months prior to death

You may start seeing signs of change in your pet as far out as six months and sometimes it could be as late as a few weeks. It is difficult to predict when you’ll start seeing changes, but you may want to consider having the conversation about end of life decisions for your pet when:

  • They have received a terminal diagnosis
  • You notice them starting to withdraw or seek more affection
  • Sleeping more than normal through the day
  • Decreased appetite
  • Declining weight and muscle mass

It is always good to have a conversation early with family and your veterinarian to help you prepare for what is to come. This would also be a good time to look at all of your options for end of life, and how you would prefer to say goodbye. You can call your veterinarian or a mobile practice like MN Pets to talk about options, scheduling, and COVID protocols.

Weeks prior to death

As death approaches, you could expect to see a progression of the above symptoms and behaviors, but please note that not every pet will show these signs and symptoms, some may not show any at all up until the time of passing. You may also start to notice:

  • Self isolation in strange places
  • Increased disorientation/restlessness/agitation
  • Weakness/exhaustion
  • Changes in body temperature (hot or cold)/itching
  • Eyes may lose their luster (become dull)
  • Prolonged wound healing
  • Incontinence
  • Constipation/Diarrhea
  • Fluid retention in the abdomen (pot-bellied appearance)

Days to hours prior to death

You may notice your pet having a sudden rebound, a moment of clarity, where they seem to be back to normal with a good appetite, and maybe enough energy for a walk. This is not unheard of, and in human hospice as well as veterinary hospice, it is usually referred to as “The Swan Song.” This point in the process could last from hours to a day or two, but is often followed by fatigue or collapse. There is not a lot of research as to what causes this sudden surge in energy, but it is believed that when the body undergoes the natural changes such as organ failure, it releases chemical compounds that can naturally give the body energy. (Matloff) This is a good time to spend with your pet, talk with them, share memories, and let them know it is ok to let go.

As our pets get closer to passing, you may see the following changes:

  • Delirium (this can often be misunderstood as pain or discomfort)
  • Drifting in/out of consciousness
  • Sudden calm
  • Non existent appetite, decreased to nonexistent water consumption
  • Difficulty/inability to swallow
  • Muscle spasms/twitching
  • Gum color changes to pale pink/gray/or white
  • Changes in breathing pattern (labored, periods of holding breath)

After going through my own experience of helping my pet pass at home, I was grateful to learn that this stage is a lot harder for us as observers than it is for our pets. When we start seeing changes in breathing for example, our pets are usually no longer conscious about what is going on around them.

Another thing I learned through the booklet “Soar, my Butterfly” by Gail Pope, is that when our pets stop eating and drinking, it’s their body telling them they no longer need to do these things to sustain life. The reason why the body goes into dehydration is because it helps the body regulate the existing fluids for the circulatory system as it continues to slow down. Lack of hydration and food also cause the brain to release endorphins that work as a natural analgesic to help take away any feeling of pain or discomfort. (Pope 9-10)

Time of death

The time of death can look different for each pet, but more often than not, it is a time of peace and gentle passing. Their final breath can come across as a gasp or sigh, you may see them take a final stretch, and become still. It is very normal for a pet to urinate or defecate as their body lets go, and they may pass with their eyes open as blinking is a voluntary reflex. They may wait until you step out of the room to take a shower, or fall asleep, this is very common for pets as well as humans.

Once your pet has passed, you can expect them to go into rigor mortis (the stiffening of the joints) anywhere from 3-4 hours after they pass.

There are several options available to help with the aftercare of your pet. MN Pets offers cremation pick-up services, but you can also bring them to their regular clinic or directly to a local crematory as well. Home burial is also an option, but we recommend you check in with your county ordinances before doing so.

If your pet passes in the middle of the night, when these services are not readily available, we recommend keeping them in a cool, dark space.

When our Tex passed, we scheduled to have an Aftercare Specialist, from MN Pets, come to pick him up the next morning. We put a comfy blanket over him, lit a candle, and sat with him for hours. Our cat came in every now and then to check on us, which was very sweet, because she was never a huge fan of him. With our extra time with him, we decided to try and make our own paw print out of drywall mud, which I DO NOT recommend. We made a mess and I’m still finding spots to scrape off the floor, but I value that memory nonetheless, it gave us an excuse to laugh in between our tears.

As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, I had never experienced a natural death before, and when I was faced with it last year, I had no idea what to expect or what was happening at the time. As I reflect back on that day, after my research, I can pinpoint each event and I know now that he did exactly what he was supposed to do, and that he didn’t feel any pain.

This is a tough subject, taboo, and a conversation no one wants to have about a loved one. My hopes for this article is to bring peace to those who have gone through this experience, or to help prepare a family who may have to go through this in the future.

 

Bibliography

Matloff, J. “The Mystery of End-of Life Rallies.” The New York Times, 26 July 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/24/well/the-mystery-of-end-of-life-rallies.html.

Pope, Gail. Soar, My Butterfly: The Animal Dying Experience. 1 ed., CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2015.

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