At some level, animals seem to understand the concept of death. From elephants who grieve for the loss of a herd member to whales who won’t leave their dead babies behind, many species react to death in much the same way that people do. But are animals able to understand that they are going to die themselves? That is a different, more existential question.
In my work as a house call veterinarian specializing in end-of-life care, I saw many incidences of a dying pet’s animal friends acting as if they had some comprehension of the situation. In one case, I had sedated the family dog and placed an intravenous catheter through which I was going to give the final injection of euthanasia solution. Up to this point, the family cat had remained at a distance. But just as I started giving the injection, she walked up beside me, lay down, and gently placed her paw on her friend’s leg as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’m here with you.”
A colleague also likes to tell the story of when she was in a family’s home euthanizing one of their three dogs. Just as “Zoey” was passing away, her two canine housemates entered the room, stood over her body, and howled…very loudly.
But stories that reveal a pet’s understanding of their own impending death are harder to come by. Many owners will talk about pets who have “told” them that it was time to let them go. In most cases, the pets turn inward. They withdraw from the people they love and no longer show any interest in what is going on around the house. At other times, dying pets seem to seek out more attention from their caretakers or do things they have never done before. Do these behaviors indicate that these pets understand they are dying or are they simply caused by the pet’s declining health? It’s impossible to say, particularly since we can’t help but interpret the circumstances through the lens of our understanding of a pet’s mortality.
On the other hand, I have witnessed several instances when it seems as if a pet has chosen the “right” time to die. In one case, a heartbroken family member was rushing home to spend a last few minutes with a pet who had taken a sudden turn for the worse. He was flying in from overseas and was experiencing some travel delays, but his dog gamely held on. Once he arrived, the dog cuddled with him, gave him a few licks, and then slipped into unconsciousness until I arrived to help him on his way.
I believe my own dog, Duncan, may have had a sense that his end was near. He was an absolutely ancient black Lab. At the end of his life, it became obvious to me that he was dying even though every test I ran on him came back perfectly normal. If any dog died of “old age,” it was Duncan.
During his last few weeks, he’d dodder out of my back door in the morning to look for the perfect place to rest. Once he found it, he’d spend some time gazing around him with a look that seemed to say, “Today is a good day to die.” Then, he’d lie down and sleep the entire day away. When he awoke in the evenings, he looked so disappointed to find himself right back where he started.
We’ll probably never be able to definitively answer the question of whether pets know when they are going to die. What is vital, however, is that owners and veterinarians recognize when the end is near so that we can provide all the love and care necessary to make their last days as good as they possibly can be.