Process of Natural Death
The loss of a beloved pet is an emotional time for the whole family and can be especially stressful or confusing for those who have not experienced death before. Just as your pet has its own unique personality, so will his or her passing be unique to them. While the process of natural death is different for every animal, there are common signs that your pet is nearing their final transition. By becoming familiar with these common behaviors, the better prepared you and your family will be to make your pet as comfortable as possible during their final days.
Generally speaking, animals nearing the end of their time in this world will naturally slow down and their eyes may have a "distant" look. Your pet may no longer conform to his/her normal schedule, and may seem to become more forgetful: forgetting to eat or drink, wandering to an unusual place in the house and forgetting where they are, or seemingly forgetting their house training and having accidents on rugs or in abnormal places. These deteriorating behaviors are natural and are not something that your pet is doing on purpose. This time of change is when your pet will need your love and understanding the most.
As the final hours move closer, most pets will lie down; stretching out in a usually comfortable, familiar place. Your furry family member still needs water, even if s/he can no longer stand to drink. This is the time when liquids may have to be administered by a dropper or syringe. You also may choose to move your pet at this time to a linoleum surface or other area of your home where you can easily move around them, and where it is easier for you, as the owner and care-taker, to maintain your pet as their end approaches. His/her ability to control their bodily fluids will continue to deteriorate. No longer standing to use the bathroom, you will notice that s/he will begin to simply “mess” themselves where they lay. You will want to have your pet laying on "wee-wee pads" (see resources), especially under the rear of your pet to catch bodily fluids that the animal can no longer contain on his/her own.
Your pet may make audible sounds, as well as experience quivering muscles that are essentially involuntary movements, as are the sounds the animal may vocalize. These signs are not necessarily expressions of pain, but rather physical displays that the animal cannot control. Though these behaviors will be hard for you to witness, it is important for you to remain as calm as possible. Your pet has always looked to you for guidance and reassurance in strange situations, and the situation surrounding their final hours—perhaps the strangest of all situations for your pet—is no different. Try to breathe in a calm, even manner and speak in a soft reassuring tone. If your pet can see or sense that you are calm, it will help to keep them calm, too.
As the very end nears, your pet's gums will become increasingly pale. Their temperature will drop until it is cold. At certain points, your pet may pant briefly. Breathing will become heavy, then increasingly shallow. When your pet makes their final passage from this world, s/he will urinate and defecate involuntarily, and this may be coupled with additional involuntarily vocalizations and muscle movements. During this time, stay close to your pet in a spot where s/he can see and smell your presence: still remaining calm and speaking in a soft, reassuring tone.
Once your pet has passed, your vet will be able to assist you in the most appropriate steps to care for your pet's remains, including cremation and memorial urns. If your pet is especially ill and in pain at the end, your vet may recommend euthanasia. This will help your aging pet in their final transition and, though this will likely take place outside of the home and in a controlled environment, you may still notice many of the behaviors we’ve covered here.
Please keep in mind that the signs and behaviors we discuss here are described in generalities. What we’ve attempted to provide is intended to prepare the owner for what is ahead, covering common stages that animals typically experience as part of the final passage. Your pet may experience each of these in varying degrees, s/he may not experience any of these, or they may exhibit signs not covered here at all. Despite the changes you may see in your pet’s behavior as they prepare to make their final transition, rest assured that the one thing that remains consistent is their undying love for you and their loyalty to the family. Make sure that your furry family member knows that those feelings are mutual—through your calming actions and gentle tone—all the way through their life, to that final moment together.