Another Case for Making Sure a Dog Is Really Dead

A couple of weeks ago we brought you the story of a puppy who was hit by a car and appeared to be dead, but...

 |  Jan 4th 2012  |   13 Contributions


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No worries: This dog is just sleeping. (Albeit not necessarily so comfortably.) If the dog did not rouse and did not appear to be breathing, would he be assumed dead? There's a fine line, and it's imperative to know where it's drawn. (Photo from the Flickr photostream of Flickmor)

A couple of weeks ago we brought you the story of a puppy who was hit by a car and appeared to be dead, but when the distraught owner went to bury him the next day, he was very much alive. It brought up an interesting conversation in the comments and Dogster Facebook page about when dead is actually dead.

It seems even the pros can mistake an unconscious dog for a dead dog. Yesterday, firefighters in Utica, NY, found a dog who appeared to have died in a home blaze. They brought the poor dog's body outside — but the dog did not stay "dead" for long. Once in fresh air, the dog sat up and surprised the heck out of everyone who assumed he had perished, according to WKTV.

So once again we're faced with the question: How can you tell if your dog is really dead before burying him or sending him off for cremation? I'm finding nothing worthwhile on this online, so I'll ask any veterinarians, vet techs, or other experts out there to please leave comments about how we can tell for sure that a dog is dead and not just unconscious — perhaps with diminished functions that make it hard to see breathing or hear a heartbeat. Are there ways, besides going to a vet to check?

Update! Minutes after posting this, I asked Dr. Eric Barchas, Dogster's own veterinary expert, for his input on the topic and he immediately wrote back with a very helpful, insightful answer:

There are three basic tactics I use to determine whether an individual is alive.The first is to listen to the heart.This is generally the most reliable, but it cannot realistically be done by a nonprofessional (or by anyone who hasn't listened to thousands of hearts), since it's too easy to listen in the wrong place or to misunderstand the noises one hears.

The second is to assess whether the animal is breathing. This can be done by anyone, but it is important to watch carefully and be aware that very shallow breathing can be hard to see (and that agonal breathing, which occurs sometimes after death, may be mistaken for normal breathing).

The third is to assess for rigor mortis (stiffness that occurs after death).The timing of its onset varies widely — from a few minutes after death in severely ill animals with poor circulation to many hours after death.However, once it occurs, it is a reliable sign that an individual is deceased.

The whole process is actually much more difficult than many people imagine.Remember that the tradition of holding wakes originated because it is so hard to tell whether an individual is decisively dead.Burials were postponed several days to prevent accidentally burying someone alive.

Finally, be aware that the definition of death itself is controversial.Some folks advocate for using electroencephalography or functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess brain activity as the true measure of whether an individual is alive or dead.The definition of death is not as much of a moral minefield as the definition of the start of life, but it still causes sparks to flare on occasion.

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