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Pet Caregiver Support Blog…

The Harmful Old Wives’ Tales, Part 4 (Final): Behaviors in Dying Pets

By Brad Bates, DVM

This is the last part of this series about dealing with dying pets. I hope it has provided you with some useful insights about pet euthanasia and decision-making.

In the first three sections, I described misleading ideas that can affect euthanasia decisions:

I will touch on another very common and harmful old wives’ tale (or in this case, tail):

“My dog still wags her/his tail, she/he is not ready, right? Then why does she/he seem so sick?”

This is similar to “My cat purrs, even when I’m not petting her/him. That means she/he is still ok, right?”

Dying Pets and Innate Behaviors

Shelby rests with his favorite stuffed animal.

We cannot fall into this trap. Wagging and purring are innate, simple and often habitual behaviors

I have assisted many pets through the euthanasia process, many of which had the blessing from their regular veterinarian who couldn’t do the procedure at home as the family requested.

So many of these pets were well into the death process and phases of suffering but many of these would still have the energy and mental capacity to wag their tails (mostly dogs) and purr (cats). They are often subconscious behaviors and in no way determine the level or stage of dying or suffering. They can be compared to a handshake or a wink or a grunt an older, dying person may do at the end of their lives.

At the very least, we should not use the lack of these behaviors or their presence to determine the timing for euthanasia.

  • Dogs will wag their tail in almost any disease process and almost every stage, including the end stages of death.
  • Cats will often purr when comforted with their owners to the same degree and will often be found purring for no reason at all or when they normally would never purr.
    • This last sign is significant and is often a very bad sign in cats.

We should never have to say our goodbye to our pet when he/she cannot show us a simple sign of devotion and love. We may think we want this. The reality is that delaying a euthanasia decision based on false assumptions may well add to a pet’s suffering. And that’s the last thing anyone wants to do.


This series was intended to outline the most common misconceptions and Old Wives’ Tales I hear every day. These misconceptions allow for so much suffering in our pets and pet families. I hope this series can educate and open a different type of discussion surrounding these issues. It is incredibly important to have a veterinarian dedicated and attentive to the needs of your pet, guiding you through changes that are seen in the end stages of life. This is important so you know what signs to look for, which are most significant, and which help us determine the stability and prognosis for an ill pet.


Brad Bates, DVM, is a hospice care veterinarian with Lap of Love in Philadelphia.logo for Lap of Love


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