How to Ensure You Are There Should Your Hospitalized Pet Pass Away

Photo Credit: Jennifer Lombardo

Wherever I’ve worked, with one exception, I’ve had the ability to ensure that my clients were allowed cage-side access pretty much 24/7 with their very sick pets (and I didn’t last very long at the job where this wasn’t an option). I wanted my clients there, particularly if I felt that these might be their beloved pets’ final days, hours, or minutes.

Despite my darned good intuition about the status of my patients, every once in awhile, one would pass away unexpectedly. I still hold grief about these animals, knowing they took their last breath in a strange place, surrounded by strangers. And, I held such sadness for their human companions. These folks were often plagued with guilt at having not been with their pets at the time of death. Having facilitated a pet loss support group for several years, I know that navigating through the grief process is often far more difficult for those who have lost their pets under such circumstances.

Jen, Louie, and Bruno

Jen is one of my regular readers. Her email provided me with the impetus to write about this topic:

Hi Dr. Kay,


I am not sure if you are able to help me or give me some guidance. I am not even sure if I am headed in the right direction with this but here it goes…


I had two English Bulldogs, Louie who lived to be 11 years old and Bruno who lived to 8 years old. They died this year 3 months apart.

Bruno was first.  He died of sepsis caused by prostatitis. Louie died 3 months later from cardiac arrest after having a seizure during treatment for ventricular tachycardia. I feel that both dogs were sick and, in the end, would have died, but what bothers me the most is how I was unable to stay with them at the time they needed me the most.


I left Bruno in a cell in the hospital alone overnight for 12 hours where he slowly died due to his sepsis (despite all they were doing for him) and I wasn’t allowed to stay with him and be there to comfort him and let him know that I didn’t just abandon him.


I was with Louie when he died, but the doctor who admitted him was more concerned with the fact that I told her I was not leaving my dog than discussing a code status and a plan with me. Louie was intubated and had CPR done on him and I did not want that. I was in the next room and she could have sent someone to get me and ask me what I wanted done. If she had established this right at the beginning he wouldn’t have had to go through that.


So I am writing to you because I don’t know how I can help these animals that cannot speak and make their needs known, to be able to have their owners present during their hospitalization. I don’t know where to start and I have no idea if you can help me. If not, I understand, but thank you for listening to my story.



Ensuring you are with your pet

Jen’s story is pretty darned haunting, and it begs the question, what can one do to make sure that her story won’t become yours? Here are some pointers to ensure that you will be with your hospitalized pet when he or she passes away:

  1. Choose your veterinary hospital wisely. For help with this I encourage you read the chapter called “Finding Dr. Wonderful and Your Mutt’s Mayo Clinic” in Speaking for Spot. If hospitalization for your pet is necessary, look for a facility that provides round-the-clock care with constant monitoring, generous visiting hours, and a hospital policy dictating that you are to be called, any time day or night, the moment your pet’s condition declines.
  1. Have a heart-to-heart talk with your veterinarian about the seriousness of your pet’s condition. Does she think that it’s likely your pet could pass away while in the hospital? If so, what is her best guess as to when this might occur?
  1. Let the hospital staff know that you absolutely want to be contacted any time day or night should your pet’s condition take a turn for the worse. Emphasize how important this is to you.
  1. Provide the contact number for the phone that you will keep by your side, the phone that will be set to the loudest ring tone under your pillow while you are sleeping.
  1. Visit with your pet as much as your schedule and the hospital policy allow.
  1. Have a frank discussion with the veterinary staff about whether or not you would want your pet resuscitated (brought back to life) should he suddenly stop breathing or his heart stop beating. Unless you authorize DNR status (do not resuscitate), the staff will feel obligated to try to bring your pet back to life.
  1. If there is nothing more that can be done to reverse your pet’s terminal disease, and the quality of life has become vastly diminished, it is likely time to consider either euthanasia or home hospice care. Either way, you will be able to ensure that you are with your pet during this very important time.

When your pets passed away, were you able to be there?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at,, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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17 Comments on “How to Ensure You Are There Should Your Hospitalized Pet Pass Away

  1. Hi Lisa,

    As hard as it may have been to retell, thanks for sharing your story about Buddy with my readers. How horribly heartbreaking for you. I realize this may have all happened years ago, but know that I am truly so sorry for this loss.

    Warm best wishes,

    Dr. Nancy

  2. Once the options for treatment are gone, we are fortunate to have a veterinarian who will come to our farm to help our dogs pass on. We have had instances where the final moments were not what we would have wanted–emergencies prevented this scenario.

    We learned our most important lesson from Buddy–an older yellow lab that had been abandoned when his doting owner passed away due to cancer. He ended up in a rescue; we made him part of our family and got returned him to being spoiled. Buddy had been with us just over 3 years when, one evening, he didn’t eat his dinner (pretty much a universal signal that something is wrong with a labrador). A little later, he threw up. We called our vet and they made an appointment to bring him in a couple of days later. Tests revealed something lodged in his intestines and they needed to do surgery right away. Buddy had ingested part of a corn cob and it needed to be removed.

    We were told that the surgery went well and that they wanted to keep him overnight, and we agreed without asking any questions about who would be caring for him and whether or not they would be in the room all night, etc. We trusted our vet so much that we joked that WE would like to have him as OUR doctor… But we made a terrible mistake by assuming that Buddy would be constantly monitored all night by one of the veterinarians; a mistake which cost Buddy his life but taught us to be vigilant regarding every other one of our dogs.

    We did not ask the extent to which Buddy would be monitored or by whom. We assumed someone would be in the room with he and any other animals, all through the night. We were wrong. A vet student stayed on sight but just checked at certain times. While Buddy looked fine and seemed to be recovering nicely at the end of the day on Friday, in the early hours of Saturday morning, Buddy had developed a high fever and become listless. To make matters worse, this was before cell phones, and, as the vet tried to call to get us to the clinic, they couldn’t get through because our phone line was in use. By the time they got through, to let us know what was happening, Buddy was being prepped for emergency surgery. Only a short visit was possible, and Buddy could barely hold his head up and was light years from the self he’d been the night before. He didn’t survive the surgery and we were crushed.

    It was not only hard to believe that a corn cob started the path that took him away, but also unacceptable that the person responsible for taking care of him didn’t notice anything at all to signal that Buddy’s health was declining until the Veterinarian arrived the next morning and found Buddy in severe crisis from septic shock. We were in dumbfounded, having expected to pick Buddy up and bring him home to recover….then he was gone.

    We made our concerns known to the veterinarian, that they should have let us know that the overnight care was just on a check-in basis and that it was a student rather than one of the veterinarians doing the service. If we’d had that information, we would have transferred him to the nearby University veterinary hospital where he would have been watched and checked more closely. We were not able to go back to that veterinarian again, and we do not leave our dogs in facilities that do not have more intensive and engaged monitoring overnight. We have learned this lesson the hard way, but it’s one that will not be forgotten….

  3. Thank you for this post Dr Kay. I shared on my page and just today a woman posted that it helped her to let her vet know she and her husband wanted to be with her Sheltie if it looked like she was getting worse. They were able to be with her when she got her angel wings. That means everything to us pet owners. Thank you.

  4. My vet is very good about letting me stay with my dog. It was the primary criteria I used when looking for a new vet, as not only do my dogs stay calm and unafraid when I stay with them, but I believe that any vet who puts their own convenience ahead of my dog’s best interests is not a vet I can trust.

    My problems arise when I need to see a specialist or go to an emergency clinic, as it can be much harder to find one that will let me stay. I have never taken a pet to the nearest veterinary school (UC Davis) for that reason, as they don’t ever let you stay with your pet.

    I have never been confronted with a dog that might die when left, fortunately, but made the difficult decision to euthanize one dog rather than pursue a diagnosis with a specialist who would not let me stay with him, as I knew he would be terrified, might be brutalized (he would snap when very scared), and I just couldn’t live with that possibly being one of his last memories. We suspect he had a tumor in his heart but did not confirm.

    I wish more vets understood the value to both clients and patients of being able to be there for our pets.

  5. Thank you Marion for sharing your bittersweet stories.

  6. I have been able to be with almost all of my animal family when they passed (about thirty all together), but the others still haunt me – One dog who escaped the yard and was killed by a car, especially since the person who hit him took his collar like a trophy, one donkey who died unexpectedly in her paddock over night, and my beautiful sweet 3 year old pit bull who died of gut torsion on the operating table where, of course, I couldn’t be with her. The vet ( a guy)who had been trying so hard to save her was in tears when he told us. I appreciated his tears more than I can possibly say!

  7. Whether the one passing is human or companion creature, it is so important to be there, for the one going and the one left behind. M.D. Or D.V.M, discussions need to happen, and wishes for treatment and DNR need to be discussed. Hard to talk, but better in the long run for all.

  8. I was so sorry to read the story from Jen about her beloved pets Louie & Bruno.It is very heart breaking to lose a pet who loves you unconditionally.My thoughts and prayers to Jen.
    Dr.Kay thank you for passing on information where others can turn to on the final days of their pets lives where they can be treated with dignity.I am an avid reader of your email newsletters which I have learned many things about our pets,thanks to you.

  9. Soon after moving to a new state, my Bichon Frise, at age 12, suddenly lost control, use of hind legs. took him to an emergency hospital (of course it was on a Saturday evening!). No diagnosis, but prognosis not good…..the vet said if he didn’t improve in 12 hrs he most likely wouldn’t improve at all. Emergency vet wanted to keep him in hospital, on IV pain meds all weekend til a surgeon came in Monday to evaluate. I said no, that if he was going to get better or not, that I would be with him and not have him alone in a cage and “out of it” with medications. I took him home (with a pain Rx), rested on the floor with him, monitoring him all night. His condition deteriorated thru the night and in the morning. The next day, one of the hardest decisions in my life was to end his pain, but asked the vet to come out to our truck and do the injection as I held him in my arms so that he would be in a familiar and loved place with me by his side. As hard as that was, I think it was better than his being in a cage alone, and seemingly forgotten.

    I now have an excellent vet and access to a 24 hr emergency surgical hospital, but hope to never have to use for the 2 dogs I have now. After your blog about this, I will be doing more thorough questioning of the emergency hospital’s policies regarding visitation and staying with a pet. Thank you

  10. I can’t imagine not being with my pets when they pass on. I want my face (and voice) to be the last thing they see/hear. As a retired vet tech I have had to be with many pets when they die because their owners couldn’t be. I make this special time to offer warm hugs, ear scratches and to tell them to “go easy, you are loved”.

  11. Hi Tim,

    I encourage you to ask your current veterinarian if he or she knows of a pet loss support group in your area. If one does not exist, perhaps joining a nonspecific type of grief support group might make sense. My heartfelt condolences on your loss of Dixie. She sounds like an incredibly special dog.

    Best wishes,

    Dr. Nancy

  12. First of all, I would love to hear more about the pet loss support group that you facilitate. There is nothing like it in my area and was curious if there was some chat room or on-line support I could contact.

    I have been subscribing to this blog for several years, have read “Speaking for Spot,” and have commented in this forum on occasion. This is a subject that is deeply personal and of great interest to me in terms of my professional development. My dog Dixie, a yellow Lab of the finest kind, passed away in June of 2016 and I am still reeling from the loss.

    The short answer to your question is that, yes, I was there when she took her last breath and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Dixie was there for me during the darkest times as well as moments of great job. What kind of a friend would I be if I could not be present when she left this world?

    Dr. Jed Barnes, as well as his staff at Bradford Pet Hospital in Olathe, KS, were the personification of kindness and compassion on the dreadful summer day that I let her go. Dixie had an inoperable brain tumor. The neurologist at the University of Missouri gave her three weeks to live. Dixie gave me six, but not until earning her 18th agility title three weeks before succumbing to the evil that had invaded her body.

    No pet should die alone. Therefore, no hospital or clinic should agree to take a pet into their care overnight unless there are qualified associates on site to monitor the condition of the animals entrusted to them. If they are unable or unwilling to provide overnight personnel, the animal should be referred to an emergency hospital or clinic that does.

  13. These are the most heartbreaking times in a dog’s companion’s life. For those of us who are not afraid, being present at a death is an honor. I am blessed that I only had one cat die alone; he was hit by a car, and I was out looking for him; I did not find him in time. I had one dog who went from perfectly healthy to dead in 10 days. She did spend several nights at a local ER hospital; It took me that long to worm it out of them that she was not going to recover.(They also would not let me see her for more than a few minutes a day; I don’t go to them anymore) So, I brought her home so she could die at home with me. She was very uncomfortable, so I made arrangements with my vet that she would come after work and euthanize her the next day. Well, that night was very bad; I called my vet just before she was leaving to go to the clinic, and told her I would meet her there when she arrived (I live closer…and this is one of a million reasons why I adore my vet: she gave me her home number!). When I arrived, staff had already set up a dog bed with a sheet in the office lounge; there were candles and flowers, and it was soft and comfortable. It was a good death.
    Because I rescue, I have been present for more than my share of deaths.One elderly rescue girl declined fast, and I had to rush her in to the clinic to end sudden terminal suffering, and one of my dogs also declined in the space of a day with undiagnosed hemangiosarcoma, and we had to rush to the vet: but ALL my dogs die in my arms, looking into my eyes. One of my requirements for a vet is that they will come to my home to euthanize, whenever necessary; once they came on their lunch break! I am happy to pay a bit extra for a comfortable home death (although my vet now has a policy that clients who bring their animals in for years of care are no longer charged anything for euthanasia!! One more reason why I have the best vet in the world!) They are not a 24 hour vet, so I always bring any ill dogs home overnight and return first thing in the morning; I see no point in paying for my dog to be alone overnight! Also I’m not squeamish and can do whatever is necessary. My vet has a tiny office building; but she knows all my dogs are traumatized rescues, and that I rarely will leave them alone in a cage…so they set me up with cushions and blankets in a corner of the treatment room if they need to keep a constant eye on my dog, or they have us hang out in the employee lounge on the couch, and come in to check on us. Any discomfort or inconvenience is far outweighed by being there for my animals, who are always there for me.

  14. The veterinary emergency clinic I brought my dog to wanted to euthanize my dog.I brought him home And had a few more days with him. am fortunate to have been able to have my collie Cody euthanized at home. There is a wonderful hospice/in-home service provided by a local vet. This is all she does, and is compassionate and caring. Although it was difficult to let my dog go I knew it was time and being there and having Cody pass at home was a peaceful experience.

  15. My worst heartbreak was having a family member at the hospital. On the morning they were to come home, we got a call that they had died in the night. Not only were they alone but we believed she was now alright. I have never been successful in finding a vet with 24/7 care except an emergency clinic. I do have a vet that will come in often during off hours to check on them if they are critical. I would volunteer to sleep on the floor next to my family at the vet office but it is not allowed. So, as an alternative, I have negotiated that I will pick up my family at closing and return them when the hospital reopens in the morning.

  16. My heartfelt condolences for what you, your husband, and your Sheltie went through.

  17. Some years ago, I had an elderly Sheltie who had the misfortune to be bitten by another dog and shaken. Despite being rushed to the emergency vet and treated, her wounds became necrotic and the vet opted to debride them. They called me to tell me that she wasn’t doing well, and asked me and my husband to come in that evening. They called me again a little while later to say she had died. I don’t think they expected it to happen that quickly, but it broke my heart not to be with her when she died.

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