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Why did my dog die?

Species: Dog
Breed: Yorkshire Terrier
Age: More than 15 ye
I have a query re. cause of death in older dog. She was a Yorkshire Terrier, approx. 15-16 years old, and had been on diet of Hills ZD food since summer of 2010, to deal with gastrointestinal problems (causing chronic diarrhoea and weight loss). This diet change had worked, although she never really regained all the weight and muscle mass she had lost, and still had problems with loose/runny stools, although nothing as dramatic as the episodes of diarrhoea she had previously.
She has been very gradually slowing up over the last 18 months. Then appox. 2 weeks ago her breathing pattern changed for short periods of time when it became quicker and slightly laboured, before becoming more restful again – she never appeared to be in any pain or distress when this happened. She also began to become disoriented – going to the wrong door to be let out, standing staring into space until her head drooped and she began to fall down. Again, these episodes didn’t last, and she usually became alert when her name was called. Otherwise she seemed comfortable – still eating (although appetite had slightly decreased and she was beginning to lose weight again), still barking, still interacting with family. In short some days were better than others. She had also developed an odour that I would associate with renal failure based on past experience, and had begun to sneeze regularly.
7 days ago the rapid breathing pattern stayed with her permanently, even when she slept, and periods of disorientation also increased. We realised she was winding down and that we might have to consider euthanasia at some point in the near future. Two days ago she died naturally and while we were with her. It was very quick and peaceful. I don’t know why this is important to me, but I feel the need to know what the final cause of death was, and if there was anything we overlooked or could have done. On the night she died, she was resting in her bed when she lifted her head and a few tremors or shudders (seizures?) passed through her body, before she settled back down again. A couple of minutes later, her breathing became loud and ragged and when I looked over, her mouth was open, tongue hanging out. She seemed to be gasping in breath. I lifted her up (her body was limp) and this rasping breath continued for a few seconds more before it stopped, she seemed to become alert again, stretched out her body and looked around at us. I thought she was ok and put her back in her bed, but then she took 4 or 5 gasps of breath with about 10 seconds between each one (so long that I thought each one was her last) before she stopped breathing altogether.
I realise that she was at the end of her natural lifespan and that you have to make a best guess at what happened, but I would very much appreciate your opinion on whether this was heart failure, renal failure, stroke, or if something else was overlooked by us such as Cushing’s disease. She did have swollen abdomen and some slight hair loss which we put down to ageing process and her dietary restrictions.
The last time she had bloods done was in summer 2010 when digestive disorder was diagnosed – at the time all were clear, no heart or kidney problems, or diabetes etc.

Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

Oh, I am sorry to hear of your loss.

While I won't be able to say for sure why Kellie died, you have given me some clues and I have a few ideas.

I'm suspicious that she had an issue with her liver. What you have described with her being confused, staring into space and drooping her head can be signs of something called hepatic encephalopathy. We see this condition when the liver is very diseased. The liver is supposed to detoxify things in our body and if it is not working properly then we can see symptoms similar to what would happen to us if we had consumed too much alcohol.

The enlarged abdomen can be a sign of liver disease as well as a diseased liver will produce fluid and cause some abdominal enlargement.

The breathing issues make me wonder about the possibility of a cancer in her chest, although there are other possibilities.

When you combine the potential liver problems with the breathing issues my best guess would be that she had a liver cancer which spread to her lungs.

The seizure or tremor like activity you saw at the end is a normal part of the dying process and doesn't really tell us much about the diagnosis.

The good news is that we don't believe that liver cancer is a painful process. My thought is that dogs who have this condition just feel kind of "under the weather", but I don't believe they are painful.

If this was liver cancer, there would not have been anything that you could have done to help.

I'm so sorry for your loss.

Dr. Marie.

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Disclaimer: Although Dr. Marie is a qualified veterinarian, the information found on this site is not meant to replace the advice of your own veterinarian. and Dr. Marie do not accept any responsibility for any loss, damage, injury, death, or disease which may arise from reliance on information contained on this site. Do not use information found on this site for diagnosing or treating your pet. Anything you read here is for information only.

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Dr. MarieDr. Marie is a veterinarian who practices in a busy animal hospital in Ottawa, Ontario. She created Ask A Vet Question as a resource for good, accurate veterinary advice online. Dr. Marie treats dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, and rats. She has been a vet since 1999.

Is an online vet visit just as good as a trip to your veterinarian? No! But, many times, asking an online veterinarian a question can help save you money. While Dr. Marie can't officially diagnose your pet or prescribe medications, she can often advise you on whether a vet visit is necessary. You can also ask Dr. Marie for a second opinion on your pet's condition.