The time to learn how to take your dog’s vital signs is before you’re faced with an emergency. It’s very beneficial as a pet owner to be familiar with your dog’s heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature in case your pet is ever in distress. Learning how and periodically checking and recording normal vital signs is useful not only for some practice doing it, but you’ll also be able to use the numbers as a baseline of what is “normal” for your pet in case of an accident or illness.
Important Things to Note
- Practice at home when you and your dog are relaxed so you know what to do when you have a concern.
- If you’re having difficulty learning how to check vital signs on your own, ask your veterinarian to show you how the next time you take your dog in for a wellness exam. Working with your dog's veterinarian is the best way to keep your pet healthy, and the basis of that relationship is regular wellness checks.
- Being a well-informed and educated pet parent is important in helping prevent or catch potentially serious health issues early on.
Vital Signs and How to Check Them
- There are two ways in which you can try to determine pulse without a stethoscope: (The heart rate will be the same both places, so do whichever is easier for you and your dog.)
- Lay pet on side (preferably on right side, but either is fine)
- Place hand over pet's chest just behind the shoulder blade to feel for the pulse.
- Place your fingers in the inner portion of your dogs hind leg right up against the body wall to feel for the femoral artery and check pulse.
- The heart rate will be the same both places, so do whichever is easier for you and your dog
- Count the heartbeats per minute (i.e., count beats for 15 seconds and multiply by 4)
- Normal heart rate (in beats per minute) is:
- Cats: 140 – 220
- Dogs: 60-100 in big dogs, 100-160 in small breeds
- Small dogs, puppies, and dogs that are out of shape will have faster heartbeats while large dogs and those in good physical condition will have slower rates.
- Because normal varies so much, it’s difficult to assess abnormal without a baseline, so take your dog's heart rate a few times and make notes. If you’re concerned about what you're finding, discuss your results with your veterinarian.
Oral temperature readings will be falsely low and placing something in your pet’s mouth can anger or irritate them. Ear thermometers and forehead skin strips are not accurate with pets. Use a digital thermometer to take your pets rectal temperature.
- Lubricate the end of a rectal thermometer with a water-soluble lubricating jelly or petroleum jelly
(K-Y jelly or Vaseline yellow petroleum jelly) and gently insert in the rectum
- This process is a lot easier with help: Have someone hold your dog’s muzzle gently and praise them for good behavior. Slowly insert the device about one or two inches into your dog’s rectum, but don’t force it.
- Wait the time recommended by the thermometer, remove it and read results For digital thermometer: leave in until it beeps and check and record the temperature. For non-digital thermometer: wait 2 minutes after inserting before checking temperature.
- Normal temperature (in Fahrenheit) is:
- Dogs: 100.5° – 102.5°
- Cats: 100.5° – 102.5°
- Call your veterinarian if temperature is below 98 or over 103, or if you see evidence of blood, diarrhea, or a black, tarry stool on the thermometer.
- Your pet should be laying quietly in a relaxed position
- Watch the chest rise and fall
- Count the number of breaths for one minute
- Normal resting respiratory rate (breaths per minute) is:
- Dogs: 10 – 40 (May be higher if panting)
- Cats: 20 – 40
- If your dog is panting frantically and is glassy-eyed, don’t count anything except the minutes it will take you to get to a veterinarian. Your dog is in critical condition from overheating.
- If while breathing the abdomen is expanding instead of the chest on inhalation your pet is not breathing normally. Irregularities such as low or fast respiratory rate, loud gasping sounds, shallow breathing, breathing with mouth open, or the abdomen expanding instead of the chest on inhalation, should all be treated as an emergency. If any of these abnormalities are observed seek veterinary care as quickly as possible.
- Cats typically do not pant unless they are in a stressful situation (going to the vet, frightened, in hot weather). They should not pant for more than a few minutes at a time. If panting persists and the animal cannot return to normal breathing, treat as an emergency.
Mucus Membranes/Hydration Status:
- Your pet's mucous membranes are the inner cheeks and gums
- Pull back pet's upper lips and examine her gums
- Normal mucous membranes are a healthy pink and moist.
- Brick red or brown, pale light pink, white, or blue colors of the mucous membranes are colors indicative of an emergency (shock, loss of blood, or anemia) and you should seek care immediately.
- Dry, sticky or tacky-feeling gums can signal dehydration, also potentially serious.
- Some dogs have black pigment in their mouths/gums that is normal. In this case, assess the color of the tongue.
The skin tent test also tests your pet's hydration status.
- Gently pinch the skin behind and between pet's shoulder blades, and lift up, (as in a tent), and immediately release.
- If the skin snaps back against the body in less than 1 second, your pet is properly hydrated. If it takes longer than 2 seconds for the skin to snap back against the body, your pet may be dehydrated.
Capillary Refill Time (CRT):
- Pull back pet's upper lip and find the gum line above their teeth. The gums should be pink.
- Gently press with your finger or thumb on the gum and release. The gum will blanche and turn white.
- The pink color of the gum should return within 2 seconds.
Other helpful indicators in establishing emergency situations include:
- Bruising around the gums, and other areas of skin, such as the inner ears and abdomen areas, can indicate:
- severe anemia
- blood loss
- coagulation dysfunction
- other critical situations
- Jaundice or yellowing of the mucous membranes or skin, which can indicate kidney or liver problems
While it may be a little difficult to determine these values your first try, with a little practice you can become very proficient at checking your dog’s vital signs. Every animal is different, and every animal will have a different “normal.” Keeping the measurements taken from your pet when they are healthy and comfortably resting can be useful to serve as a baseline when determining if something is going wrong. Learning these easy to master skills is a great first step to becoming a more educated pet parent and can help catch potentially serious health issues early on.
Click here to download a PDF chart to record your pet's vital signs during your monthly home health check. Click here for an Excel template of that same chart.