Death talks in the context of pets are not the most chipper activity out there, but the curious nature of humankind requires answers that can potentially help us cope with the death of a beloved companion.
Dogs, and animals in general, are so much in tune with themselves that they can understand their worsening state weeks before actually passing away. It is not uncommon that people can tell that they are dying, but it is mostly very late in sickness that their mind accepts it.
We Can All Start Answering From Personal Experience
As someone who has seen their fair share of pet death throughout the years, I am positive that dogs do know when they are dying. While my own perception of this is nothing more than an individual take on dog self-awareness, it can be something other dog owners relate to.
Two of the dogs that I grew up with all went beyond their life expectancy, and when the moment of death was only one door away, they started behaving in a way that was unlike their usual “selves”.
Refusing food, affection, and even the comfort of home, they were looking for ways to get as far as possible from their area of enjoyment. However, one of them was a mixed breed whose slow decline and death I will never forget.
My Golden Retriever GSD mix was always an independent but frivolous dog that had a great understanding of everything that was going on around him. A month or so before passing away, he began trying to escape the yard, despite it being an unlikely feat.
As the days went on, his appetite completely disappeared, and his eyes never glanced at any of us. This avoidance of contact with his family was disconcerting and sad at the same time. We tried every possible way to treat him, but he simply refused help.
One day, the skies opened and there was at least five inches of rain that made the yard look like a small pond. The temperature fell below forty degrees, and it was one of those days that called for a warm plate of food and lying on the sofa.
It must have been at least ten or fifteen times that I went outside to get my dog out of the deep mud. The minute I entered the house, he would already come up with barely enough strength to get back in the puddles and as far away from the house he could go.
My family and I finally decided that it was time to euthanize him, since this vague resemblance of life was a painful experience for the dog. His last gasp was at the same time the last gaze he graced my eyes with.
Science Is Yet To Explain How Dogs Perceive Dying
While humans mostly rationalize their physical state during illness, dogs have highly developed primary senses that can help them realize something is wrong before they even display symptoms.
Every dog owner who had to part with a long-standing canine member of the family knows that their behavior drastically changes once the physical decline ensues. Research on this front is all but nonexistent, so we have hardly any scientific evidence to support a conclusive answer.
A PetMD article says that dogs “run away” to die because they are disoriented due to a loss in cognitive ability, and that there is no real existential understanding of what is happening to their bodies.
The only piece of arguably scientific value is a small-scale thanatological questionnaire conducted by Psychology Today. Dog owners who lived or live with dogs were asked to answer how they perceived their pet’s awareness of death.
Results indicated that most people believed their dogs were not aware of what was going on, which is not a definitive answer to what the actual truth is, but gives us plenty of points to discuss.
A Higher Level Of Existential Awareness In Dogs Could Exist
Full self-awareness is a mental trait that we humans take pride in. To begin even questioning whether dogs know they are dying or not, we have to establish some benchmark for self-awareness.
Since death is mainly and inevitably connected to the deterioration of cells without the ability to reproduce in a timely manner, a dog’s awareness of its body is a good starting point for this conversation.
Not many studies have been conducted in this particular area of animal psychology, but there is one that can work as an argument against the theory that dogs do not know when they are dying.
Nature.com’s publication of a scientific report regarding dogs’ awareness of their own body has conclusive results that indicate their ability to contextualize their existence in the world they live in.1
The experiment was performed by putting an object under a mat the dogs were sitting on and asking of them to give it to their owners. All dogs understood quickly they were the obstacle that prevented them from accomplishing the task.
This proves that dogs are not only aware of their bodies, but they also understand the consequences of their actions. While this study is not the ultimate, all-encompassing answer to whether they are aware of dying, it does provide a basis on which we can build on.
Human Empathy VS Animal Instinct
Our connection with dogs has been evolving and solidifying itself for thousands of years. The bond created between humans and dogs is rivaled by few other interspecies social relations.
Neither dogs nor humans are co-dependent, but prefer each other’s companionship. The nature of such a strong emotional connection can make it appear as though a dying dog is leaving to spare us the pain.
It is a basic human trait to read into things and find patterns in events or things that are, in reality, completely random. Dog behavior is simple and effective, but often overanalyzed by their owners.
Theories speculate that, as a member that cannot provide value to its pack anymore, a dying dog will remove itself from the area its family inhabits to avoid making them vulnerable to attacks.
A different perspective suggests that dogs nearing death leave home to find another safe place to prevent other predators from harming them. I do not see a lot of logic behind this, seeing how dogs feel most safe with their owners, who provide and care for them.
Of course, dog behavior prior to death can vary and is mostly dependent on the condition that caused it. In general, you can look out for these 15 signs that your dog is dying.
Bigger minds than mine do not have an answer to this question, but my opinion is that dogs are aware of their physical state before dying. Their behavior seems to indicate it, but then again, every breed and dog is different.
Your dog might behave in a way that is not characteristic of dying dogs, which can be related to the purpose it was bred for, which is directly related to the “purity” of its primal instincts. The death of a canine companion is never easy, but you can always find ways to keep the memory of your dog alive.
Lenkei, R., Faragó, T., Zsilák, B., & Pongrácz, P. (2021, February 18). Dogs (canis familiaris) recognize their own body as a physical obstacle. Nature News. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-82309-x#citeas