You love your dog. You’ve shared your life with them, watched them get older, and now you're worried.
You understand that the natural aging process leads to decline and eventually death, but it hurts to think about it. You don’t want your dog to suffer unnecessarily, so you know—as hard as it will be—that you will let them go when the time comes.
But how do you know when that is? Or…Maybe your pet has been given a diagnosis that means the end is coming, or maybe there’s something that’s gone wrong suddenly. How do you know when to call your vet or the ER?
Let's look at the realities of senior pets and discuss signs that it might be time for them to cross the rainbow bridge.
Old age. We all want our beloved dog to live forever, and struggle to imagine life without them. But understanding the reality of age is an essential part of caring for your dog from the beginning of their life to the end.
Most people are familiar with the concept that one year in the life of the dog is roughly equivalent to 7 years in a person’s life. Actually, a more accurate way to age dogs is like this:
Give them 15 years for the first year of life—a puppy grows up to their full skeletal height by their first birthday, long and lean, like a 15-year-old teenager. (This often pretty accurately describes their personality development and decision-making!)
Give them 15 years for the second year of life—a dog reaches their full physical maturity by their second birthday, so are now like a 30-year-old adult.
After this, you give them 5 years for each year. Over the course of their life span, this formula comes out about the same as that 7-to-1 ratio, but the point about their quick early development is important, because changes at the end of life can be similarly steep. When they reach the far side of their natural genetic life span, everybody wants to think there’s going to be this long slow decline and you’ll have lots of warning, but unfortunately, often that isn’t the case. A 10-year-old dog is a 70-year-old human. At this point, many of us won’t see or hear as well as we did when we were younger, our joints will start to hurt, our muscles will get weaker, but many of the things older humans use to maintain a good quality of life—canes and walkers, glasses and hearing aids—aren’t available for our dogs.
This definition varies for everyone. Happiness does not mean the complete absence of pain, disability, or worry, but there has to be a certain balance between the good and the bad.
Example 1: A dog goes blind, and they adapt very well—they use their nose, they follow their housemates around, and accept occasionally bumping into things. Another dog goes blind and they are unable to adapt—they are anxious and confused and miserable. Same specific physical problem, but very different quality of life. Dogs live in the moment, and can’t rationalize about the future. If they are in pain, they can’t imagine a time when that pain will end.
Example 2: A young dog gets hit by a car and there is injury and pain. Giving them sedatives until they heal is an important part of their care. However, when an older dog has pain because of advanced disease and medications aren’t working anymore, sedating them long term is not really a fair choice. Same kind of problem, but very different quality of life decision making.
A crisis in an otherwise healthy dog is judged differently than the progression of a chronic condition. If you are worried, you should reach out to a vet to discuss the specifics of your dog’s situation in real time, and they can help you determine if they need medical attention right now.
Here are some things that you can look for that might indicate a serious problem, and will be helpful information for you to share with a medical professional.
Heart rate: Normal heart rate for a dog is about 100-140 beats per minute. You can feel this by laying your hand on their chest. Sometimes sliding your hand to the underside of their rib cage will make it clearer. You could also try gently pressing your fingers into the middle of the very top of the inside if their thigh, like you might to feel the pulse in a human’s wrist. If the heart rate is too high, that can mean anxiety or pain, or the heart trying to compensate for low blood pressure caused by dehydration, blood loss, or heart failure. If the heart rate is too slow, that can indicate the effect of a sedative or toxin, or more advanced heart or metabolic failure.
Breathing rate: Normal breathing rate is generally less than 30-40 breaths per minute. Breathing is partially under your control and partially automatic. Remember, dogs pant rapidly for a number of reasons—anxiety, happiness, heat… It is best to judge their breathing rate when they are asleep (when it is all automatic). If they are sleeping and their respiratory rate it too high, they are likely having true breathing difficulty or a fever.
Gum color: Normal gum color is a bright bubble gum pink, like your tongue. If it is pale or white, that can mean low blood pressure from dehydration or anemia (low red blood cells). If it is looking ‘muddy’ or more blue/purple, that is due to a lack of oxygen. It can be helpful to look at “capillary refill time”. That healthy pink color to the gums comes from oxygen in the blood carried in the tiny blood vessels (capillaries) near the surface of the tissues. If you press your finger onto the gums briefly, when you lift it, there should be a pale spot. The pink color moving back into that spot in under 3 seconds is a normal “refill time.” If the pale spot stays too long, it can indicate low blood pressure from dehydration or shock.
Body temperature: Normal body temperature for a dog ranges from 99 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. You can take your dog’s temperature with a regular OTC digital thermometer, however, it must be done rectally to be accurate. You only need to dip it in far enough to cover the silver sensor, using Vaseline or even first aide ointment as lubricant. A very excited dog may have a higher temp, but a dog struggling to breathe with a high temp is in crisis, because dogs primarily regulate their body temperature through their breathing (panting being the main way they blow off heat).
Posture/activity: You know your dog’s usual activities, so if you observe any of the following, it could be a sign of trouble. Taking a moment to capture any abnormal movements or behaviors on video can be very helpful later, too.
Your dog looks tired but won’t lay down and won’t stop pacing—this can be a sign of pain. A more specific one is a dog that goes down on its front legs but keeps its rump up, which is a sign of belly pain.
Your dog looks tired but is standing with their elbows out, panting, heading hanging down. A variation is a dog laying down but staying upright, rather than on its side—this can be a sign of fluid in the lungs.
Seizures or muscle tremors can indicate brain disease, toxins, or chemical imbalance.
When your dog is walking, they are dragging a foot, or walking on the tops of their feet—this can indicate spinal problems.
Back pain can make a dog yelp when you try to lift or sometimes just touch them.
Pupils—the dark spot in the center of the eye, called the pupil, generally changes size with light, getting bigger when it’s dark out and smaller when it is sunny. The pupils should be the same size, left and right—if they are not, there may be a brain problem. Very large pupils that don’t shrink with light, or very tiny pupils, can be a sign of stress or shock or indicate a toxin.
Other signs of potentially serious trouble: Your dog is vomiting everything they take in, food or water. This could mean a blockage that can’t wait. And lastly, a tight, distended belly that is hard like a drum, especially in a dog that won’t eat.
It can be hard to know if what your dog is experiencing is serious and indicative that they're nearing the end of their life or if it's easily treatable. The Vet Pros at Pawp can help you understand the best next steps for your pup and answer any questions you have.