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How To Check Your Dog’s Pulse, Respiration, and Temperature

It’s a rotten feeling … when you know your dog is not himself, but you’re not sure how serious his condition is, or what you can do to help. That’s why we’re excited to have Denise Fleck with us on the blog today! Denise is an author, instructor, and pet safety guru, and in this post she’s going to teach us how to read Rover’s vitals.

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Learning to check your dog’s vital signs can help assess his degree of pain, injury, or illness and propel you on to your next course of action. The more you know what is normal for your dog, the more quickly you can determine when something is “not quite right” and get him the professional medical help he may need!

The basic vital signs you’ll want to check are your dog’s pulse, respiration, temperature, and capillary refill time. We’ll explain what they are and how you measure them one at a time.

RESPIRATION – Here we’re measuring the number of breaths taken per minute.

Checking Dog's Vitals : Photo Copyright: Sunny-dog Ink

Copyright: Sunny-dog Ink

  • 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. Small dogs should range between 20 and 40 breaths per minute, while larger dogs will be slower at 10 to 30 breaths per minute.

TEMPERATURE – This is simply measuring the body heat and cannot be accurately gauged by feeling your dog’s nose.

  • 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 beep according to instructions.
  • Your dog’s temperature should be between 100.4° F and 102.5° F (38° C-39.16° C).

PULSE – This is the rhythmic movement of blood through arteries. The heart beats and the blood flows (pulses) through the vessels.

Checking Dog's Vitals : Photo Copyright: Sunny-dog Ink

Copyright: Sunny-dog Ink

  • 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, and our larger friends will be a bit slower, 65 to 90 beats per minute.

HYDRATION – This is the measure of moisture in pet’s body, which should be about 70% of his body weight.

  • 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 they’re 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 lethargy is present, your pet may be severely dehydrated and in need of immediate veterinary care.

CAPILLARY REFILL TIME (CRT) – This is a measure of the dog’s circulation/perfusion.

Checking Dog's Vitals : Photo Copyright: Sunny-dog Ink

Copyright: Sunny-dog Ink

  • Again, carefully lift your dog’s lip and press gently on top gum above the teeth with the ball of your index finger until gum turns white.
  • Release pressure and color should return to the gums in 1-2 seconds. Capillary refill time indicates whether circulation is sufficient to send blood to extremities.

Gum color is 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, immediate veterinary care should be sought.

If you measure your dog’s CRT and it takes longer than 2 seconds for color to return to his gums, your pet needs immediate veterinary care. As you transport, cover him with a light blanket to preserve body heat and slightly elevate his hind quarters (unless accompanied by a bleeding injury to the head or chest) to promote circulation to his vital organs.

WEIGHT – Body 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.

Dogs, like humans, should remain at a healthy weight. You should be able to feel your dogs ribs but not see them (except for super lean breeds like Greyhounds and Ridgebacks), and his belly should tuck up higher than his chest. 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 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.

Learning what is normal for your pet will help you determine when something is not right, so practice taking your dog’s vitals and make note 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.

Denise Fleck - Author PhotoAbout 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 to help people help their pets BEFORE veterinary care can be reached.

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