How to Take Your Pet’s Vital Signs

Pet emergencies and accidents are a part of life for pet parents. From cats jumping off furniture and landing the wrong way to dogs having allergic reactions, sometimes our furry friends need help between the moment they are injured to when they arrive at the veterinarian hospital. Your dog or cat is your best furry friend, but you can be their hero by being prepared to assist them in times of crisis. One of the best ways to care for pets is to know how to take a pet’s vital signs.

Beautiful ginger tabby kitten looks up.

 

What are your pet’s basic vital signs?

Vital signs are the means to establish a normal baseline of health for your dog or cat. In an emergency, taking your pet’s vitals and knowing what is normal for your pet can inform you as to whether you do have an emergency on your hands, and if so, potentially what kind. It also gives you the chance to have values and numbers to provide to the veterinarian once your pet has arrived at the clinic.

There are three basic vital signs to learn and monitor in your pets are heart rate, respiratory rate, and body temperature. Here’s how to check each of these vital signs in your cat and dog. 

Checking your pet’s heart rate

The first step to prepare for a pet emergency is to know what your pet’s heart rate should typically be and how to check for it. For dogs, there are varying standard heart rates based on the size of the dog.

For small and medium-sized dogs:

  • Pulse: 70 - 140 beats per minute

For large dogs:

  • Pulse: 50 - 120 beat per minute

Cats have a heart rate that falls between 140 - 200 beats per minute.

How can you properly take your pet’s pulse? Here are the steps to follow for this check.

  1. Use a timer or watch with a second hand.
  2. Locate your pet’s pulse by placing your hands on the chest cavity, right behind the elbows. Another way to check a dog’s pulse is to place your fingers inside the dog’s thigh, close to where the body and leg meet, on the femoral artery.
  3. Count your pet’s heartbeats for 15 seconds, then multiply by four. The sum is the number of beats per minute. If necessary, rest your hand on your pet’s chest to count the breaths. 

Normal respiration is typically quiet (with the occasional exception of the brachycephalic breeds); it should not require significant effort on your pet’s part. Be patient if you are a cat parent, as it can be more challenging to measure the heart rate on cats. 

Also, don’t panic if you hear your pet’s heart skip a beat here or there. Some dogs and cats have a sinus arrhythmia, which is often caused by a vagal nerve. This condition rarely causes difficulty for dogs but may be an early indicator of heart disease in cats. Talk with your veterinarian if you notice frequent irregularities in your cat’s heartbeat.

Checking your pet’s respiratory rate

First, make sure you are taking your pet’s respiratory rate when the dog or cat is resting; in other words, don’t check the rate right after your dog has been racing around the backyard or your cat has been wrestling with her toys.  

To measure your pet’s respiratory rate, count the number of times your pet’s chest expands over 15 seconds, then multiply that number by four. 

A healthy dog will have a respiratory rate of 10 - 30 breaths per minute, while a healthy cat will have a respiratory rate of 15 - 40 breaths per minute.

Dog with sad eyes lies down on the deck.

Checking your pet’s body temperature

Although no one likes to hear it --- including and perhaps especially your pet --- the most accurate way to measure your pet’s body temperature is to use a rectal thermometer. Using some vaseline along with a high-value treat may distract your pet long enough to get the job done.

However, if this method proves too difficult or uncomfortable for you or your pet, you can use a “touch-free” infrared thermometer or ear thermometer instead. 

A dog or cat’s average baseline temperature will fall between 99.5 - 102.5℉.

Keep your pet’s records updated

When you’ve taken your cat or dog’s vitals, record those results to compare them against future checks. Store those results in a place you can easily find so you can refer to them when necessary. Keep a log in your pet’s first aid kit or download any of the helpful pet apps that allow you to save your pet’s health information

Be your pet’s best friend when it counts

We rely on our pets to provide us with unconditional love and companionship. One of the best ways we can repay the love our pets give to us is to take the time to care for their needs. Part of that care involves our pets’ health and knowing your pet’s baseline normal for heart rate, respiratory rate, and body temperature are critical to monitoring and managing her health. In case of emergency, you’ll have essential information to provide to the veterinarian so they can treat your pet, and you’ll be a better, more responsible pet parent, too.


References:

  1. Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. (2018). Brachycephalic Breeds Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.hsvma.org/brachycephalic
  2. Gompf, R. (2011). Sinus Arrhythmia. Retrieved from https://www.saintfrancis.org/wp-content/uploads/Sinus-Arrhythmia.pdf
  3. Pet Place Veterinarians. (2020). Cardiac Arrhythmias in Cats. Retrieved from https://www.petplace.com/article/cats/pet-health/cardiac-arrhythmias-in-cats/
  4. Jumabhoy, A. (2020). Dog Training Treats: High Value Vs. Low Value. Retrieved from https://k9ti.org/blog/dogtrainingtreats/
  5. Randall, S. (2018). 14 Dog Health and Wellness Apps for Pet Owners. Retrieved from https://topdogtips.com/dog-health-wellness-apps/