It’s a rotten feeling … when you know your pup isn’t himself, but you’re not sure if he’s seriously sick. Simply learning to check your dog’s pulse, respiration, and temperature can help you assess his degree of pain, injury, or illness. And that can help you decide on a proper course of action. Knowing what is normal for your dog will allow you to determine when something isn’t quite right and get him the professional medical help he may need!
The basic vital signs to check are your dog’s pulse, respiration, temperature, and capillary refill time. We’ll explain what they are and how you measure each one.
Checking Your Dog’s Vital Signs
Here we’re simply measuring the number of breaths your dog takes in a minute. To determine your dog’s respiratory rate, follow these steps:
- Observe or place your hand over your dog’s chest to count the number of times the chest rises (inhales) and falls (exhales). Each rise/fall combination counts as one breath.
- Count the breaths for 30 seconds and multiply by two to get the respiratory rate in breaths per minute.
A normal respiratory rate for small dogs is between 20 and 40 breaths per minute. Larger dogs will have a slower respiratory rate, usually between 10 to 30 breaths per minute.
Your dog’s body heat cannot be accurately gauged by feeling your dog’s nose or belly. To get a good measurement, you’ll need a digital thermometer. One made for humans is fine, just be sure you keep your dog’s thermometer in a separate place from others in your home. You wouldn’t want to grab the wrong one in a feverish haze!
To check your dog’s temperature, follow these steps:
- After lubricating the tip of a digital thermometer with a petroleum or water soluble jelly, move your dog’s tail up and to the side to prevent him from sitting. Then insert a thermometer ½”-1” into the dog’s rectum. Wait for the thermometer to beep, according to instructions.
- Your dog’s temperature should be between 100.4° F and 102.5° F (38° C-39.16° C).
READ MORE ⇒ Symptoms of Fever in Dogs
Your dog’s pulse is the rhythmic movement of blood through his arteries. As his heart beats, the blood flows (pulses) through the vessels. You can measure your dog’s pulse by following these steps:
- Place the ball of two fingers (not your thumb) on the depression found in your dog’s inner upper thigh, over the Femoral artery. It may take a little searching around to find it the first time – don’t give up!
- For smaller pets, placing your hand over the left side of the dog’s chest just behind the elbow also allows you to feel the heartbeat.
- Count the beats for 30 seconds and multiply by two to get the pulse rate in beats per minute. The normal pulse rate for small dogs will range between 90 and 160 beats per minute. Larger dogs will have a lower normal pulse rate, usually between 65 and 90 beats per minute.
We all know that dehydration is a serious condition that affects pets as well as humans. Here we’re measuring the moisture in your pet’s body, which should be about 70% of his body weight. Follow these steps to determine if your pet could be dehydrated:
- Carefully lift your dog’s lip/flews at the side. (Lifting from the front of the mouth is uncomfortable for many breeds).
- If the gums are sloppy wet, he is well hydrated. But if his gums are dry or sticky he may be slightly dehydrated. Encourage him to drink.
- If your dog’s gums are dry or sticky, his eyes are sunken, his skin remains in a peak when gently grabbed at the shoulders, or he’s lethargic, your pet could be severely dehydrated and need immediate veterinary care.
READ MORE ⇒ Recognizing Dehydration and Heat Stroke in Dogs
Capillary Refill Time (CRT)
To check your dog’s circulation, you’ll need to determine his capillary refill time. This is measured by following these steps:
- Again, carefully lift your dog’s lip. Then press gently on top gum above the teeth with the ball of your finger until gum turns white.
- When you release the pressure, the color should return to the gums in 1-2 seconds. Capillary refill time indicates whether your dog’s circulation is sufficient to send blood to extremities.
If it takes longer than 2 seconds for color to return to your dog’s gums, your pet needs immediate veterinary care. As you drive him to the vet, cover him with a light blanket to preserve body heat. If he’s not bleeding from an injury, you can also slightly elevate his hind quarters to promote circulation to his vital organs.
Gum color is also a good indicator of overall health. Gums that are pink indicate a normal, healthy pet (unless the gums normally have a dark pigment). Pale or white gums could indicate anemia, blood loss, or poor circulation. Blue or grey gums could indicate lack of oxygen. And yellow gums could indicate liver disease or zinc toxicity. In any of these last three cases, your pet needs immediate veterinary care.
Your pet’s body weight is another important factor in determining his health. Specifically, be on the lookout for sudden increases or decreases in your pet’s weight.
- For large dogs, body weight is best measured on the scale at your veterinarian’s office. For small dogs you can hold the dog and note your combined weight on your bathroom scale. Then immediately set you dog down and weigh yourself. The difference between the two is your dog’s weight.
Knowing your dog’s precise weight is imperative before administering treatment or medication. The smaller the pet, the more critical it becomes. Even being off by a pound could result in an overdose.
Unfortunately, so many pets are overweight that it can be difficult to recognize a dog’s healthy body shape. It might be easer for you to judge by feel. If your dog is at a health weight, you should be able to feel his ribs but not see them. (Of course, super-lean breeds like Greyhounds and Ridgebacks are an exception.) When viewed from the side, your dog’s belly should tuck up higher than his chest. And, looking down at your dog’s back, you should see a slight waistline. If you think your pet may overweight, speak with your veterinarian about a healthy way to help him drop some pounds.
Knowing what is normal for your pet will help you determine when something isn’t right. So practice checking your dog’s pulse, respiration, and temperature and keep track of the results. Then, whether it’s an allergic reaction, injury, or illness, you’ll be in the best position to assess your dog’s condition and help him recover.
About the Author: Denise Fleck has trained with 12 national animal organizations and has taught more than 10,000 pet lovers animal life-saving skills. She’s developed courses, written nine books, and created a line of pet first aid kits and posters so people can help their pets BEFORE veterinary care can be reached.