Checking your Dog or Cat's Vital Signs

 

Knowing Your Pet’s Vital Signs... before It's an Emergency

Some emergencies are obvious; broken limb, bleeding, choking, etc.  However, there are some pet emergencies that are more subtle and require a more keen awareness of the signs and symptoms.  Waiting until your pet has an emergency is not the right time to be figuring out how to check his or her vital signs for the first time.  Practicing at home when your pet is relaxed and in good health is an ideal time to familiarize yourself with their normal heart rate, breathing rate, temperature and a few other important indicators.  Knowing what normal is plays a vital role in you being able to distinguish abnormal signs that might point to an emergency. 

What you need: 

  • Baseline Vitals Chart
  • Pen
  • Rectal Thermometer (and a dab of vaseline)
  • Timer (for counting pulse rates) 

(*Note: With today’s smart phones, it’s easy to take notes and add photos or video to them. Taking a photo or video of your dog or cat’s normal breathing rate, gum color, capillary refill time, and the dehydration test, can provide a visual reference in addition to written notes. However, it’s important to have a paper backup in the event your phone is not available.) 

HEART RATE

You can determine your dog’s or cat’s heart rate in one of two ways; using the palm of your hand over their heart to count the beats or taking the pulse at their femoral artery located in the inner thigh of their back leg. 

For either method, lay your dog or cat preferably on their right side but, the left is fine too. 

    -Place your palm on their chest just behind the shoulder blade to feel for their heart beat.

Or 

   -Locate their femoral artery by placing two fingers on the inside of their thigh right where the leg meets the body and feel for the pulse.

Both locations should provide the same result so do whichever method is easiest for you and your pet.  Count the number of beats for 15 seconds and multiply by 4 to determine the heart rate. 

Normal can vary with each pet which is why it’s critical to establish a baseline of their vitals while they’re relaxed and in good health. It’s good practice to take their pulse a few times to see if there is any variance and record your findings.  In the event of an emergency, you’ll be able to refer back to your pet’s normal heart beat ranges to more easily determine if something isn’t right

General guidelines for Normal Heart Rates Per Minute are as follows:

Cats: 140-220 beats per minute (bpm)

Dogs greater than 20lbs: 60-100 (bpm)

Dogs less than 20lbs: 100-160

Puppies and kittens or dogs out of shape will have faster heart beats but bigger dogs and those in good shape will have slower heart rates…just like humans!

 

TEMPERATURE

A digital thermometer to obtain a rectal temperature is the most accurate method.  Most ear and forehead thermometers are inaccurate and taking an oral temperature can be dangerous to both you and your pet.  

Using a small bit of water soluble lubricant on the end of the thermometer, gently insert the thermometer one to two inches but do NOT force it.  This is more easily done with help.  Having someone correctly hold your dog in a standing position that keeps them from sitting down on the thermometer can make the process go much more quickly and successfully. 

Digital thermometers typically provide a reading within 10 seconds. 

Normal Temperature in Fahrenheit: 

Dogs: 99.5-102.5

Cats: 99.5-102.5

Indications of an Emergency:

Temps below 98 and above 103

Blood, diarrhea, or black tarry stool on thermometer

 

RESPIRATORY RATE

Establishing a baseline of breathing rates can easily be accomplished by watching your dog or cat while they’re relaxed and laying quietly.  Simply watch their chest rise and fall and count the number of times they take a breath in one minute.  

Normal Resting Respiratory Rate Per Minute:

Dog: 10-40

Cats: 20-40

Indications of an Emergency: 

Cats typically do not pant unless they are frightened, over heating, stressed, or experiencing a medical issue.  If your cat pants for more than a few minutes at a time and can’t seem to return to a normal breathing pattern, than seek veterinary care immediately. 

A dog that presents with a glassy eyed look with extreme, frantic panting is likely in critical condition due to heat stroke.  Get to an emergency clinic immediately. 

If you notice that on inhalation, your dogs belly is expanding but not their chest, they’re having difficulty breathing.  Any gasping, shallow breathing, wide open mouth breathing is a medical emergency. 

 

CIRCULATION AND HYDRATION

Checking your dog’s or cat’s gum color, capillary refill time, and texture can indicate their state of circulatory health as well as hydration.  

A healthy dog or cat will have pink, moist mucous membranes (gums, cheeks, lips, inner fold of eyelids) and tongue.

Gently pressing on the gums will create a white color as blood is forced out of the capillaries. Counting how many seconds it takes for the gums to return to a normal pink color when you let go is known as capillary refill time.  A healthy dog or cat will have a 1-2 second capillary refill time. 

Gently pinching the “scruff” of the neck or the skin on top of your dog or cat’s head can also indicate whether they are dehydrated.  A well hydrated pet’s skin will bounce back within one second. If it takes longer than 2 seconds to return to normal, your pet is dehydrated. 

Indications of an Emergency:

Capillary refill that takes longer than 2 seconds. 

Any discoloration or bruising appearing on the abdomen, inner ears, or any other areas of skin can be signs of blood loss, severe anemia, coagulation dysfunction, or other critical scenarios.

Blue, pale, brick red, yellow, or brown coloration of the mucous membranes is a serious issue that can caused by blood loss, anemia, shock, or poisoning.  

Dry, tacky or sticky gums are often signs of dangerous dehydration. 

If the skin stays in a “tent” position after a hydration pinch test and doesn’t return to a normal position, the level of dehydration is critical and your pet needs immediate medical attention. 

 

Establishing these baselines before your pet has an emergency can make a big difference when it comes to needing these skills when they matter most. Record the information you gather on the Baseline Vital Signs Chart and keep a copy in your pet's first aid kit and a back up copy in their files of important papers such as their health insurance and medical records.  Your best friend depends on you for their wellbeing and in return they give endless amounts of unconditional love.  I can't think of any kinder way to reciprocate that love than to be their hero if they ever should need you in an emergency.