End-of-Life Pet Care

As any pet owner can tell you, companion animals are part of your family. You love them, you take care of them, you play with them. Someday, though, the inevitable will come: your pet will become seriously ill and pass away. Most pets don’t die suddenly; they usually become ill and linger for a while. How can you make your companion’s last days good ones, and when is it time for him or her to go? The experts at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) have some answers.

If your pet is elderly or frail, it’s best to always be on the lookout for signs of an illness or of a worsening condition. The first symptoms of a pet’s illness may not be all that obvious. The ASPCA says these symptoms can include inappropriate elimination, aggression, or vocalization. A pet may also neglect to groom itself and show changes in appetite and activity.

Even though it’s obvious that a sick pet is weaker than usual, you may not be certain that he or she is in pain. Ideally, your vet will have told you the specific signs and symptoms of your animal’s illness, so you can tell when additional symptoms occur. The ASPCA experts say that in general, signs of pain to look for include: gasping for breath; a reluctance to move; an unwillingness to be near you; and pickiness about food. If you see any of these signs, call your vet as soon as possible.

There are things you can do to help, in consultation with your vet: If your pet is ill, though not in constant or severe pain, you can help by making his surroundings as comfortable and secure as possible. Make sure he or she has a familiar blanket or toy nearby. The experts also recommend providing a soft, cushy spot for sleeping. Because elderly pets often develop incontinence, the ASPCA says you should check on them to see if they are wet or soiled. If they can’t get up to urinate or defecate, you can help them get up via a sling or a large towel placed under their body. You can also buy pet diapers.

Unless your pet passes away on his own, you’ll eventually find yourself faced with the heartbreaking question of when to have your pet euthanized. The ASPCA experts say that owners often put off having a pet euthanized because they know it will involve grief. But that may involve unnecessary suffering for your animal companion.

If your pet is nearing the end of his or her life, the ASPCA says, you can keep track of how many good days your pet has, and how many bad days. Generally, if your pet is in such pain that he is not enjoying life, it is time. Your main goal, the ASPCA says, is to minimize your companion’s suffering.

If you have more than one pet, he or she is likely grieving as well. Sometimes, the ASPCA says, a surviving pet may seem depressed and lose their appetite. Their suffering may actually be lessened, the experts say, if they can see the body of the pet who has died. “Cats, dogs and horses who see the deceased body of an animal they knew can adjust very well and spend less time searching and grieving than pets who have not seen their companion’s remains,” the ASPCA says in a statement.

For information and help on a pet’s end-of-life care, and his passing, visit the ASPCA’s Pet Loss Support Program for owners whose animals are elderly, sick or have recently passed. Click here. The agency also has a Pet Loss Hotline, 1-877-GRIEF-10.

For more information about animal welfare issues, visit the ASPCA’s site,


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