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Posted Apr 14 2013 12:00am

“For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.” ― Kahlil Gibran


Death and dying have always been topics for endless conversation, mostly centered on their meaning.  Almost as often, we talk about and search for the causes.  Death by natural causes is usually a difficult concept for some to grasp, with all the disease, accidents, and violence that can lead to a death.  It's really no different for the death of a pet. 

“Everyone’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how they lived and how they died that distinguish one from another.” ― Ernest Hemingway

How Many Pets Die of Natural Causes?
The “Irreverent Veterinarian” I have to admit – this is a peculiar question. The editors of asked me to put some thoughts down about..."How Many Pets Die of Natural Causes?" At first I thought – sure – no problem, this is an easy topic to write about. Then I really thought about it. The more I thought about it – the more I realized that I was not certain of the answer. And...I wasn't sure of the definition of "natural causes". So I looked it up. It appears that I'm not alone in being uncertain of the definition of "natural causes" as there is quite a lot written about the topic and not all of it is in agreement. According to, "In medicine, death by natural causes is a loosely-defined term used by coroners describing death when the cause of death was a naturally occurring disease process, or is not apparent given medical history or circumstances." Based on this – if they cannot determine the cause of death they call it natural causes. Hummm.... This is what I believe "a pet dies of natural causes" means. Death by natural causes is the death of a pet that has lived a full life and dies of causes associated with a natural occurring disease. The majority (but not all) of deaths by natural causes occur in old age. However, a pet can have a genetic or congenital problems that also causes a "natural" death. What is Not a Natural Cause So...a pet killed by a gunshot is not a natural cause. A pet killed by being hit by a car is not a natural cause. Nor is a pet that dies from bite wounds. What is a Natural Cause A pet that dies of cancer is a natural cause. A 15-year-old cat that dies of kidney failure is a natural cause. A 10-year-old Great Dane that dies of heart disease – dies of natural cause. The Confusion How about a 2-year-old cat that acquires a preventable infectious disease and dies before its time? Is that natural? I'm not sure. Now I'm confused again. By definition – it is a natural cause. Even though the cat has not lived a full life, it is an infection –that is a natural disease that occurs. How about euthanasia? That is not a natural cause of death. However it is often used to minimize the suffering time to a pet that is already dying of natural causes. In other cases – healthy dogs are put to sleep and euthanasia is speeding up a totally unnatural cause. Is a young dog hit by a car a natural death? He didn't get to live a full life. My Final Thoughts – How Many Pets Die of Natural Causes? It appears that I'm doing everything except answering the question – "How Many Pets Die of Natural Causes"? First – I've been spending all my time trying to figure out WHAT natural causes mean. I needed to figure out what "Natural Causes" are to come close to even giving you the answer. Another factor that affects this answer is how the pet is cared for. Pets that are well cared for, vaccinated, fed a good diet will more likely die of natural causes over a pet that is allowed to run free and exposed to many unnatural dangers. This care (or lack of) also affects a pet's life span. For example, outdoor only cats may have a life expectancy of less than 7 months. Indoor-outdoor cats have an average lifespan of approximately 3 to 7 years. Indoor only cats live longer, closer to 14 years. A good owner that provides good pet care that includes nutrition, shelter and medical care help to prevent many unnatural causes of death. Many unnatural causes of death causing dogs and cats to die at a young age has to do with exposure to unnatural dangers such as toxins, gunshot wounds, being hit by a car, etc. One consideration is what percentage of pets are "owned" or cared for in the United States? Based on the numbers of pets at the shelter and the percentage of owned pets, I would estimate that out of all pets – approximately less than 30% are given the opportunity to die from natural causes (the rest are euthanized in shelters or die traumatic deaths in the outdoors). Even pets that are owned by decent owners who might not be able or willing to treat treatable problems and elect euthanasia, will die an unnatural death. An example of this would be a dog with a fractured leg that the owners are unwilling to treat and euthanize. There are also many pets given up to shelters for behavioral problems such as aggression or inappropriate urination and are then unnatural death. Adapted from:[T]&

While we're on the subject of death and dying, whether from natural or unnatural causes, it would be nice to have a better understanding of just what is going on.  For a lot of people, Woody Allen probably expresses their feelings best:  "I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens."

  5 Things No One Ever Told You about Dying
     I have never met anyone who works closely with the dying who fears death and yet the general public has an intense fear. This fear is brought about by the unknowing - not knowing what it is like to die or see someone die and not knowing what happens after death. We generally do not know how we ourselves will die and many of us feel uncertain about what (and even if anything) happens after death. Our perceptions and beliefs about dying come largely from external sources whether that be the overly dramatic, sensationalized and inaccurate portrayals of death in the media or religious teaching. Very few of us witness natural death up close and even fewer still witness enough of death and dying to see patterns.       At New England Pet Hospice, we believe that knowledge is power.  Knowing what comes next helps us prepare and not be as fearful in the moment.  My goal in sharing these concepts with you is to let you know that what you may be seeing is a normal, natural part of dying. It is not a crisis. It is not a sign that your animal is suffering or that you are doing anything wrong. If we are lucky enough to have a long life and die naturally, it will all happen to us also.       PLEASE NOTE: here we are talking only about natural, non-traumatic death.  We are not talking about animals who have suffered an accident, injury or curable illness.  Keep in mind that although these concepts are common, but not necessarily universal.  If you are disturbed by how your animal is acting or what he or she is doing, please talk to your veterinarian.  Individual animals may vary and may require additional or other care to keep them comfortable.      For this post we are assuming that physical pain is well controlled by appropriate pain medications.  Pain should never be left uncontrolled.  As a hospice, we are committed to effective, consistent pain relief and control.      1.  Natural death is often a slow, rarely dramatic process. Bodies shut down slowly, system by system. Bodies waste away. Minds appear to come and go. This process may take days, weeks or even months. It may seem interminable and it is quite normal to wish it would be over while at the same time wishing your time together would never end. Try not to feel guilty or disturbed by these conflicting feelings.      2. As you go through the dying process, your world contracts. First perhaps to your immediate neighborhood, then to your home, then a room and finally a bed. We are all bedridden at some point in our final days. So are our animals. The fact that your elderly cat does not or cannot leave her bed is not a sign of a problem; it is a normal part of the dying process. In the final stages of death, our world contracts even more, to what is inside us. Our bodies themselves are more than we need. We recede to a quiet place inside to finish our business with this world. The fact that your dog no longer lifts his head and wags his tail when you enter the room is as normal as a 90 year old woman who in her final time spends much of it sleeping. It does not mean nothing important is happening; it means the work is internal.      3.  We all lose control of our bladder and bowels at the end of life. We enter the world as infants without that control and we die that way as elders. The same is true for animals. They come into this world relieving themselves when the need occurs and exit it the same way. Just as we would not leave an infant or grandfather to sit in excrement, we must not do so with our animals. There are many outstanding products and methods for managing incontinence in our dying and elderly companions.      4.  The dying do not need to eat.  A body at the end if life has no need for fuel. The digestive system is often one of the early systems to slow down. Appetite decreases, food loses appeal, and we fill up quickly. At the very end of life, we all stop eating and drinking also. Although hard for us to see, this is perfectly normal. As nurturers, we want to feed the ones we love; it is a natural instinct. Whether the patient is human or animal, we will often go to great lengths to get the dying to eat - preparing special foods, coaxing, begging, and even force feeding. Although loving, these attempts are often detrimental to our loved ones. When the digestive system slows or stops functioning, eating only causes gastrointestinal distress, which can be painful and disruptive. When your terminally ill loved one stops wanting to eat, let them stop. They will not starve to death, they will not have hunger, and they will not suffer.       5.  All bodies waste away at the end of life. Long before we stop eating, our GI tract stops absorbing food well.  The dying may perplex us by eating large amounts and yet still losing weight. This is because they are not absorbing the food. It simply goes right through them. If they want to eat and take pleasure in it, there is no harm, but do not be disturbed if they seem to waste away anyway. It can be quite disturbing to see a being at the end of life. They may look like no more than a skeleton covered in skin. With humans, if we ever see a person at this stage, they are usually covered with blankets or clothing and we are unlikely to appreciate the severity of their body condition. With an animal, the condition is right before your eyes every day. Others may even think you are mistreating, neglecting or abusing your animal. It is a good idea to get a letter from your veterinarian stating that the animal is in hospice/end of life care and is not being abused, but rather cared for lovingly and appropriately just in case anyone questions you. Know that even though your care is excellent, this process is common, normal and not distressing for the dying. Adapted from:

There's not much else to say at this point...except for this thought from Will Rogers: 

“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”

Any comments or questions should be sent to Helpful Buckeye at: or submitted at the "Comments" section at the end of this issue.

~~The goal of this blog is to provide general information and advice to help you be a better pet owner and to have a more rewarding relationship with your pet. This blog does not intend to replace the professional one-on-one care your pet receives from a practicing veterinarian. When in doubt about your pet's health, always visit a veterinarian.~~

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