Coping with a Dog’s Terminal Illness

As pet guardians, most of us have been through the most painful experience of our lives when we have had to put a pet down due to illness or old age. There’s no question that death is the absolute worst part of living with a pet. So, how do you go about coping with this loss? And how do you handle the mechanics of euthanasia?

How do I know when it’s time?

There is no simple answer to this question, but you and your vet can likely come to some consensus as to the proper time for euthanasia. One consideration, sadly enough, is money. Veterinary science has progressed to the point that you could drop a small fortune into your dog’s treatment and extend his life for awhile, but that may or may not be feasible for your family’s budget.

Another consideration is the quality of life your dog will have during and after treatment. If the medication will make him or her feel so groggy or nauseous that the dog’s entire day consists of napping, you should consider whether or not it’s worth it.

Most dogs have good days and bad days as they work through an illness and subsequent treatment. It is not unusual for you to have come to a decision to euthanize, only to have the dog look right as rain the next day. This makes it even tougher to pick the right time for putting the animal down.

Sad old dog
Your dog's eyes may let you know when it's time.

The best indicator of the time for euthanasia may be the dog’s eyes. As long as your dog’s eyes remain bright and alert, he or she is probably doing okay. However, when they get rheumy and bloodshot, it may be time to take the most humane course of action.

Should I stay in the room during the procedure?

Please, please, please stay with your dog while he or she is being put to sleep. The dog would do the same for you. It is indescribably hard to watch your dog die, but it is unbelievably cruel to make the dog go it alone.

That said, there are many people who simply cannot stay in the room. If that’s you, please consider sending another person who knows the dog go in with him or her. No one should be alone as they pass from this world.

Seeing your dog be euthanized can also help you through the grief process, as you will see that the dog went peacefully and you will be able to accept that the dog is actually gone.

What do I do with the body?

You have several options as to how to deal with your dog’s remains. Talk to your vet before the euthanasia about what arrangements are available at his office. If the vet is unable to help you with the option you had in mind, see if he or she can recommend a colleague who will help carry out your wishes.

Some people like to bury their pets in the back yard of their homes. This is a viable option, but you must consider that you may not live in that same house forever. If you move, you need to decide whether you will dig up the box and take it with you or whether you will leave the dog undisturbed in the final resting place you chose. Check your local zoning laws to see if there are specific rules you must follow when you choose this option.

If you want to bury your pet, but don’t want to do it in your yard, you may be interested in buying a plot in a pet cemetery. Your vet should have information on any local cemeteries which specialize in pets. Some pet cemeteries offer private services, while others bury your pet and tell you where the location is so you can visit. Some allow individualized gravestones while others may have only standard markers.

Dog cremains in an urn

Another option is to cremate your pet and have the ashes returned to you. There are beautiful urns available online or at your local funeral home that will hold your dog’s ashes. You may also choose to scatter the dog’s ashes along a favorite hiking path or at the dog park. Alternatively, you may elect to have the body sent to the crematorium to be cremated along with other animals, although you will not be able to get your pet’s ashes back under these circumstances.

The time to find out your options and make plans for your dog’s arrangements is before you are under the stress of dealing with his or her death. Take the time to talk to your vet before the need arises so you can pre-plan for the arrangements when you are calm and un-traumatized.

Grief is normal

Once the dog has passed, it’s important to know that the grief you are feeling is absolutely normal. You may try to tell yourself “It’s only a dog,” or “It’s not like it was one of my children.” But that really doesn’t ease the pain much. True, you would probably grieve more intensely if you lost the fruit of your loins, but there are many similarities between your human children and your pets, that make the losses similarly devastating.

You have spent a significant portion of your adult life keeping both types of your children safe, and now in spite of your best efforts, your pet has died. This was a living being that you had spent time (and money) caring for, feeding, cleaning up after, playing with, and enjoying the company of. The loss of the pet leaves a huge hole in your very existence. No more after-work walks, no more making homemade treats, no more flyball or lure coursing or dock diving. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that you feel a void in your life after the pet is gone.

It may help you to realize that you are not alone in your grief. Your friends who don’t have pets may not understand how painful this is for you, but those of us who have been through it know exactly what you are facing. Your friends cannot dictate to you how you should feel. If you are grieving, feel free to go ahead and grieve. It is what it is, and only you can decide when it is time to move through your sadness.

Stages of grief

Grieving after the loss of a pet is no different than the experiences people have after the death of a human loved one. You can expect to go through exactly the same stages as those described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

During the denial phase, you may simply refuse to believe your dog is gone. You may begin preparing his or her dinner before you catch yourself. You may catch a fleeting vision of the dog running past a window or hear a bark outside and look to see what your dog is chasing now.

As you get to the point where you can no longer deny the death, you may begin to experience anger. “How could this happen?” “Why didn’t the vet save this beautiful puppy?” “It’s just not fair!” Even though these expressions may seem childish, it is important to work through these questions in the process of grieving. Most of these questions don’t really have an answer, but the thought process occurs nonetheless.

Bargaining may or may not occur after your pet has died. Typically, this stage is associated with seeing your dog through a terminal illness. You might say, “If only this dog lives long enough to see his next birthday” or “I’d give my right arm to keep this dog alive.” After the dog has died, bargaining may take the form of wishing for the pain to stop by promising to do something. For example, you might say, “I’ll volunteer at a shelter every day if only that would make me feel better.”

After you have run out of bargaining chips, and you have found out that it really is not making you fell any better, you may fall into depression. You may think you are never going to get through your grief, and you are never going to stop crying. Be assured, however, that you will get beyond it. Give yourself time.

Finally, you will arrive at the point of acceptance. You will begin to realize that your dog had a great life with you, and that it is time for you to move on. This is not to say that you will forget your pet, nor that you will ever be able to replace him or her. However, it does mean that you have realized that your life continues, even without your beloved dog.

Girl comforting old dog

Grief is an individual process

Although nearly everyone will go through these specific stages, it is equally true that everyone progresses through the stages at his or her own pace. Your spouse may get through to acceptance in a week, while you may take a month or more. For your kids, it may be only a day. It’s important that each person be allowed to grieve in his or her own way and at his or her own pace.

If you get stuck in one of the stages and can’t seem to break through to acceptance, it may help to talk to others who have gone through what you are going through. There are many pet loss support groups that meet either in person or on line. Check with your vet to see if there is a local group, or search the Internet for possible groups. One good resource is


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This site has been a blessing to me. It is now 5 days since I had to put my beautiful Kia, to sleep and in that time I have thought I would go mad!!!! The grief is huge and I don't know what will happen at the moment, but I do know that I found your articles so compassionate and easy to understand. Thank you sooooo much. Regards Debra Hallen
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