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Human/Animal Bond

“He Just Went off to Die, Doc”
March 31, 2014 (published)
Wendy Smith Wilson, DVM

There’s a belief that’s firmly entrenched, at least in my area of the country, that when animals get old and sick they know they’re toast; they instinctively realize that their time on this earth is done. At that point, some inner clock tells them that it’s time to crawl away, find a secluded spot, and then curl up to die.

People tell their children this. “Well, Fluffy was old, she must have gone off somewhere to die.” They tell their friends and family as well, who then spread the word around. “You know Barbara’s old cat Leonard? He was getting pretty old and he was losing weight. She hasn’t seen him for a while. She figures he must have crawled off to die.” Or the one I hear in the exam room that makes me wince every time: “Well, Doc, we brought Old Joe in to see you today because he’s been a little off. No, we really don’t want to do anything for him, we just wanted to see if you thought it was time to put him down. We keep thinking he’ll just go off to die, but he’s still hanging around so we thought we’d ask you.”

As a child, I bought it. Every single adult I knew assured me that old dogs knew when they were supposed to die, then at the appointed they time wandered off to do so in a fashion known only to old dogs who have come to the realization that it was time to meet their maker. No one I knew ever questioned this wisdom, so I never questioned it either.

Of course, I wouldn’t be writing about it now if I didn’t think that perhaps it might be time to question this widely held belief.

In a way, it’s comforting to us to think that our old pet wandered away, found a warm, quiet place in the woods, then curled up and passed away peacefully. It certainly jibes with every movie we’ve seen and fairy tale we’ve read. It helps children stop crying when they come to believe that death is peaceful for their old pets. Rover is still gone, but at least it was a gentle death. I’m sure it helps the adults too.

I am going to rain on that parade. Plainly and simply: animals that are old, sick and debilitated are already suffering and in need of care to mitigate their discomfort, in whatever form that has come. While the notion that they drift away to die peacefully is quite romantic, I submit that instead they wander off and are unable to return. Perhaps they stumble over a hillside or into a creek and are physically unable to get out. Perhaps they become disoriented (as senior citizens are often known to do) and cannot find their way home, instead traveling aimlessly looking for a safe haven. Maybe, heaven forbid, they’ve been assaulted by another animal they were too slow to escape and either killed or too badly injured to return. Perhaps they’ve been hit by a motor vehicle.

Older pets can suffer from hearing loss, impaired vision, cognitive dysfunction (the animal version of Alzheimer’s disease), crippling arthritis and muscle weakness, or a myriad of serious, systemic diseases that can make it impossible for them to return home once they’ve gotten too far away. Even those who are not irreparably impaired cannot escape attack, speeding vehicles, or geographical disorientation. If the weather is bad they are even more likely to get in trouble — imagine what it would be like for you if you were lost, wet, cold, and afraid.

Old pets can need as much supervision as puppies and kittens in order to keep them out of trouble. Keep them inside a fence, on a leash, or only let them outside under supervision. If you see an unknown pet wandering your neighborhood, please stop and help! It could be someone’s old friend who has “wandered off to die” and needs you to notice and care.

If a pet’s health is declining, it’s better to make the difficult decision to euthanize rather than wait to let nature take its course, which is rarely peaceful and comforting; more often it is violent and carries great suffering. Dogs and cats rarely “die peacefully in their sleep,” and they do not wander off in order to spare our feelings. That's a fairy tale invented to make us feel better at their expense. At times they are suffering and they need help in dying, and you are the one who must recognize when that is the case. They do not deserve to meet a frightened, bewildering end out there lost and alone.


Wendy Smith Wilson, DVM
October 7, 2017

Hi Joe, I don't think our opinions differ much at all!  When animals are in pain and distress, their natural instinct IS to hide and conceal themselves from potential harm (i.e. predators).  Thank goodness you found your beagle and were able to spare him the suffering of the longer, slower death he would have had if you had not been able to locate him.  The same applies to Cindy's story--the pain and distress from her dog's cancer caused that instinct to hide kicked in, but the dog's death would have been much slower and more agonizing if they hadn't found her. That really was my point.  These animals don't "go off to die" a peaceful, natural death.  Yes, they die.  However, it's anything but gentle.  They suffer terribly, and there's no way for us to know how long that suffering is prolonged before they finally pass on.  And . . . sometimes the injuries or illnesses they have that cause them to hide are treatable.  They don't know that they're going to die--they just know that they feel really bad and that they're vulnerable, so they follow the instinct that tells them to hide.  This is a situation where I think a disconnect can happen for us--this business of going away and hiding doesn't necessarily mean that death is inevitable.  Do some animals that hide have incurable illness?  Certainly.  Do they all, though?  I've seen plenty of very sick animals who were able to come around, with medical intervention, and continue to live normal, happy lives.  So I'm not trying to say that the *behavior* doesn't occur.  I'm just not buying the notion that they have an internal alarm clock that says "Time to die!" and take a last, deliberate journey to bring their lives to a poetic, idyllic conclusion. THAT is the myth.

October 7, 2017

I,too, wish to differ w/ the author of the opinion piece. While I certainly respect she is a vet and understand that her position is coming from years of experience, I can only relate my own experience. One morning I went to let my 3 dogs in and the 13 yr. old beagle-mix had not returned. When I found him, he wouldn't come to me when I called him. He kept lying in the grass or, if he did get up, would try to go in a shed and crawl under the space between the lower shelf and dirt floor. And when I did get him into the house, he even crawled behind furniture. He, in my humble opinion, was definitely looking for someplace where he could die. Now, whether it's animal instinct or borne out of some need to spare the other members of his "pack" (i.e., human family) the pain of watching him die, I don't know, but he definitely tried to be alone. I took him to vet and tests discovered various internal issues. He was in a lot of pain so the family made the difficult decision to end his suffering. We were all present and were gently petting him as the vet helped him move on. The ER vet even added, "He's now in a better place..."

Cindy Chang
September 27, 2017

I beg to differ. My own personal experience when I was a teenager, we had an amazing dog  (husky/malamute mix) named Shasta.    One day we couldn’t find her. We had a fenced yard, but my dad had a fenced area with ferns within the fence boundaries.   It took us a while, but we found that our dog climbed the fence to get into the back of the ferns to lay down. My dad carried her out and we took her straight to the vet. They found that she was riddled with cancer. We had no idea. We put her to sleep that day. The veterinarian is the one who told us that she probably was hiding to die. It took a lot for her to get over that little fence. But she obviously was determined to hide. I appreciate your thoughts, but I just know what happened in our life. The dog was eight years old and had never done anything remotely similar to this.  

Jo P.
September 21, 2017

My 14yr old dog is missing for a week. He has arthritis in his hind legs & needs meds to walk. He has basically been attached to me since I adopted him at 2yrs old so he never wanders. The vet basically prescribed meds to make him comfortable. He has soiled himself due to losing his balance or just not making it outside. I also have a steep driveway that I must carry him up. Lately he was hanging around the gate which he never does, also was ingesting his urine & feces. Now he is missing. I'm stumped as to where he is. Neighbors & I have searched everywhere. There's no trace. I even considered that he went away. But honestly don't accept it. Can you recommend anything that may help me find him. He doesn't deserve to die aslone. I've already done the basics, flyers, social media, contacted police & humane societies & extensively search several times a day. Please help me in anyway. Thanks so much

September 15, 2017

I don't fully believe this. I have a 4 year old dog who has rapidly declined over the last 2 1/2 weeks. I've taken him to 2 vets for care and there is nothing to be done. It is hemangiosarcoma. I see him suffering so I contacted a 3rd vet to do in home euthanasia when I got home from work and found him stumbling and not doing well. She will be here tomorrow but I'm not sure he will make it through the night. He keeps going to the gate and looking back at me as if he wants me to let him out so he can leave. I never let my dogs run loose so this isn't a normal behavior for him to act as if I would let him out the gate.

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
September 2, 2017

Hi Chris, Because cats tend to mask signs of illness, not eating and/or hiding is a good indication of a sick cat.  If you haven't already, it would be a very good idea to take your kitty to your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Chris Dykstra
August 29, 2017

Our cat had a tumor remove from his head.  Though he was old, we felt he wa worth it.  Several months later he stopped eating and started hiding.  He would return after 1 1/2 days....I/d feed him & love him.  He's disappear, and return in few days.  He's back to hanging around more..sleeps a lot....eats very little....but better than he was a week ago.  How long do I let this go on?

Lori Craddock
July 17, 2017

@Denise, Your comment is not only ill-informed, but insensitive as well. My beloved cat who is 23 years old loved to be outside. She would not accept being kept in, as she loved to go out in the evening and lay on our front porch or in our driveway and take in all the sights and sounds happening at that time. NEVER was I irresponsible or lazy to take care of her. She was pampered like the Queen that she was. When she was outside, she never went beyond our driveway. I have had her since 1995 when I rescued her, and have given her a great life. She was given less than a month to live a year and a half ago, but somehow pulled through and kept on going. 3 1/2 days ago she just vanished. I have scoured this neighborhood, knocked on every door, put clothes out for her to smell, hung fliers all over, checked the animal shelter website every day, and no luck finding her. She was my baby and I am beyond devastated. To blame the owners and say that they are irresponsible and lazy is ignorant. If you know cats, then you also know that some will simply NOT ACCEPT being kept indoors. That was my Queenie. I suppose she died on her terms and I will have to live with that the rest of my life.

Ron Bond
May 26, 2017

My 12 year old Cocker Spaniel had been blind for 17 months but was coping well with his disability. We would go for walks where he would get petted by all. One evening a knock at my door was a neighbor who told me Reese was laving at the bottom of my next door neighbors driveway. I carried him home and marvelled how he had gotten there. He had gone out his pet door,as usual, into the fence yard, then made his way to the front porch that I had fenced off. Somehow he found a gap in the hedge  and made it to the street and to my neighbors driveway where he went to sleep. The next day he went for his usual grooming where they called to say he was having seizures. After a week of visits ti the emergency vets and some over night stays it was decided that it was time to say goodbye. I was heart broken but wanted to do what was best for him. Now, 26 days later I was rethinking the episode of this blind dog making his way to my neighbors drive and thought perhaps he knew the end way nigh. The comments that other owners have made  convince me this is true. We bought him (literally) an extra week of life, or was it just existence? I rationalized that he was recalled by God and my loan of his company was over. I will weep for him for ever.

phil feser
May 3, 2017

Thanks for making us feel WORSE about our 18 year old cat disappearing. she walked to our neighbors a few times every day like clockwork and one day simply didn't return. No vehicle traffic, no dogs, nowhere to really go in a safe neighborhood. we looked everywhere for days. She was super thin and obviously "losing it" in the end. the only thing that helped was thinking she took matters into her own hands.

March 20, 2017

Denise...please do not assume that every lost pet is the result of someone not caring about their dog or cat. I'm a grandmother who was taking care of my two grandchildren.  My hands were full with a baby and a toddler. My daughter's dog begged to go out to the back yard. After getting the babies taken care of I went to let her in, but she was not at the door. It was dark and I assumed she was out in the yard where I couldn't see.  Later, we found a space between the fence and the house that was big enough for her to squeeze through.  I had no idea it was there.  I feel badly enough that I am the reason their dog is missing without having someone judge me without know the facts.  There could be many reasons animals escape their yards, or car or run after the neighbors cat etc.  Their fur baby is older, but I do not think she would be inclined to go off to die.  She was not in poor health, just slowing down and a little hard of hearing.  This conversation is good so some people will not be so judgmental about how pets become lost.  I am broken hearted for my daughter and her family.  I pray everyday that we find her.

February 5, 2017

My kitty of 18 years started to decline and the only thing she wanted to do was go outside in the cold. She was an indoor kitty but would not rest until she was allowed outside. I snuggled her up in my coat and took her outside and that is where we sat together until she seemed ready to go back inside. We did this several times a day until she finally passed away in my sons arms while sitting in her favorite spot under our Christmas tree. I think there was something internal in her that wanted to be outside at that time in her life because she never before showed any interest in being outside.

February 4, 2017

i can agree with this supposition. as to old,therefor,hard to Get Back Home. we had an old cat[euthinized] who we had for 18 yrs.don't know age when he adopted us. always same spots to enjoy a snooze.yet that one day,that turned into four days,with no sightings. worker said he say Tucket walking by barn. couldn't find. day four ,found him hiding by hay rounds. to vet,was determined,issues possible.would need testing. but it was time to say bye. why test? we would not operate,or do other invasive options. so we gently said bye,as tucket drifted off.

December 8, 2016

I so agree with you. I get so angry when irresponsible pet owners open their doors and let their dogs and cats outside to wander unsupervised. Are they too lazy to walk their dogs on a leash? Too much bother to keep the cats SAFE indoors with a kitty litter tray? It takes very little to get a dog's attention and they will often wander off the owner's property if not in a secure fenced yard. Older sick pets DO need as much attention as puppies or kittens and they should never be allowed to go on suffering if the vet suggests it is time to say goodbye. Every time I see a dead dog or cat on the side of the road, it's because someone did not care enought to keep their pet safe at home. It's too bad people didn't have to pass an intelligence test before they could have pets.

Wendy Smith Wilson, DVM
August 29, 2016

Mendee, I am so sorry; I know that feeling all too well.  Cats are very good at hiding--I wouldn't give up just yet.  Use social media, use flyers if you can.  Check the shelter.  Contact all the local vet offices (and show them pictures). Look *under* things.  I had a friend who lost a cat downtown; he had jumped through a screened second story window while she was at work.  She was afraid he'd been killed in the fall, but because there was no body, she kept looking.  Thanks to her persistence, two weeks later she found him hiding underneath a building two blocks away.  I hope you find your old man.  Thinking good thoughts here.

August 28, 2016

I appreciate this article. My 18 year old cat is missing and I am sick. It has been 6 days and people keep telling me he knew it was his time and all that. I do not believe it. I just found your article looking for some real science behind what I believe is a wives tale...  I am so heartbroken and feel he needs our help.

July 12, 2016

How depressing. I let my 17 year old ShihTzu out to pee a little past midnight, and five minutes later I couldn't locate him.  He walked off to die.  He had been peeing in the house, but I've been carrying him downstairs at night to go outside.  I'm so depressed.

April 10, 2016

My female silky terrier, 13,  had been failing for about a month, having trouble going up stairs and getting outside. She stayed mostly in her pet bed for weeks until one night she went outside at night and didn't come back in. The next morning we searched for her and found her alive but very weak and cold. We brought her inside and warmed her with a heating pad. We comforted her and put her back in bed. She told her it was ok to just rest and let go. A few hours later she managed to slip back outside with the last of her strength. Our yard was fenced but near a copse of woods. We searched everywhere for her and called her but she did not return. We have looked everywhere but I do believe she left to go die alone. I have never had a dog do this before. She was very determined to go thru with her plan even after I had tried to make her understand that she could be warm and safe with the family who loved her and die on her own terms and in her own time. I feel she chose to leave us for reasons known only to her. She had always lived life on her terms and she died the way she chose. I am rather proud of her for that.

Wendy Smith Wilson, DVM
February 29, 2016

Shirley, I'm so sorry to hear that your little guy is missing.  I'm sure you're doing everything you can to find him--don't forget posters with a picture, social media, and that some cable companies have a channel that runs local advertisements.  When my dog went missing (she wasn't elderly, but she was still just as gone), I was able to get an announcement on the cable channel free of charge for a few days.  Check with veterinary clinics in a wider range than you'd think practical--I put notices in all of them within a 30 mile radius in case someone had picked her up while passing through the area.  And don't forget about the neighborhood kids--sometimes they see things but don't think about telling their parents. It's been two years since my dog disappeared, and I will never know.  I hope you find him or at least discover what happened, because in my experience, that empty space really never goes away.  Take care.

February 28, 2016

My little wiener dog of 16 years just disappeared.  He was still fetching balls and eating well one day and gone the next. We've searched our fenced yard and neighborhood for him but can't find him anywhere. He's never run away before. I wish I knew what happened to him.

December 6, 2015

I am coming to this article because my cat is 16 and she started losing weight, hair falling out, lethargic, and I thought she was ailing and was considering having her put to sleep. It turned out her teeth were bothering her and she can't eat dry food any longer. I only discovered this after giving her tuna to see if it was her appetite or the food. Her health has rebounded since I started feeding her wet food, her fur is nice and shiny and she is playful again. But this turn of events had me questioning: when do I know it is time to put her down? I won't let an animal suffer because it would hurt me to make that decision, but it is hard to know. My sister kept her 17 year old dog in diapers and couldn't bring herself to put her to sleep even though she was deaf, blind and incontinent. The dog got out and wandered off and she never saw her again. I just couldn't do that to my girl. She has been such a good friend for so many years, but still, how do I know when to make that choice for her?

Wendy Smith Wilson, DVM
June 29, 2015

Susan, I'm so very sorry.  The worst part is not knowing what ultimately happened to her, and that pain takes a very long time to heal.  I do hope you find her regardless of the outcome--even if she has passed away--so you'll at least be able to have the peace of knowing it's really over. Please take care of yourself. Wendy Smith Wilson, DVM

June 28, 2015

I'm reading this article a week too late.  My beloved dog of 17 years wandered off last Monday and I have been beside myself with guilt and grief. I thought she was getting pretty close to the end but she was eating, drinking and moving around in her normal routine.  She had slowed down over the past few months and I kept telling myself that it just wasn't "time". Now she is gone and it may be too late to find her.  Like so many others I thought she wandered off to die.  Now I'm afraid she may be wandering around lost, hungry, thirsty and afraid. Toby, please forgive me. God, please send her back to me if it isn't too late.

May 15, 2014

This is a good article  --  with a little reality - but the very people you would want to read it probably won't.  I used to be told the same thing as a child. And doubted it then ... I also had one dog who developed - I think - a sort of dementia-  and who both became really frightened at being alone ( totally new behavior) and once chewed and pushed his way out of a door and went wandering - and did get lost, just a little ways from the house. I found him, but before then, I didn't really consider that an animal might become so frantic and disoriented.  And eventually, he was euthanized, but in the meantime, I was much more careful ( actually, I pretty much kept him with me, or had someone stay with him)



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