There is nothing worse than that feeling we get as pet parents when our fur babies become ill. That overwhelming helplessness that says, “If only I had known sooner….,” can be rife with guilt and regret.
Knowing what your pet’s vital signs are when she’s normal and healthy – her typical pulse rate (heartbeat), respiration (the number of times she breathes in 60 seconds), her body temperature, and the color of her mucus membranes – can help you determine if your pet is sick or injured before a situation becomes desperate. Most veterinarians recommend that you find the normal range for your pet while she’s healthy and write it down somewhere at home so that it’s easy to find in an emergency.
*Note: Puppies and kittens will have a faster pulse and respiratory rate than their adult counterparts. Conversely, larger breeds of dogs and cats will have lower heart rates and breathing rates than their smaller brothers and sisters.
Keep in mind that you’ll want to check your pet’s vital signs every couple of weeks or so just to continue keeping a watchful eye on her health status.
To determine your pet’s normal heart rate, make sure she is resting comfortably on her right side. Place the first 2 fingers of your dominant hand on the left side of her rib cage just behind her left elbow. You should be able to feel her heart beating through her chest wall. Using a watch with a second hand, count the number of beats for 15 seconds and multiply by 4. This gives you a resting pulse rate per minute.
To find a resting respiratory rate, move your hand slightly down your pet’s ribcage and count the number of breaths for 15 seconds. Multiply by 4 and you have her respiration rate per minute.
You’ll need either an anal or digital thermometer to get a normal body temperature. Make sure someone is holding your pet so that she can’t move away and use a personal lubricant or petroleum jelly on the end of the thermometer. Slide it gently into her rectum, and hold it there for a minute or until the thermometer beeps. Make note of her normal body temperature with her other vital signs.
We have listed the normal rates for both cats and dogs in red below.
Listen to your pet’s heart rate. A faster than normal heart beat is indicative of pain and/or distress. A slower than normal heart beat can be caused by heart or lung disease, thyroid issues, and other types of illness or injury. You need to get your dog or cat examined as soon as possible should you notice any major change in your animal’s pulse.
• Normal Feline Pulse Rate: 160 – 240 beats per minute
• Normal Canine Pulse Rate: 70 – 160 beats per minute depending on the dog’s size
Sudden changes in respiration times can indicate heart issues, respiratory diseases, a choking problem, or any number of concerns that need prompt veterinary attention. Gasping for air, while sitting awkwardly in a chest forward position, indicates a medical emergency and you should see your vet as soon as possible. Shallow breathing and moaning while taking breaths are signs of pain. Any kind of rasping, gurgling, or retching can be a sign of choking or fluid in your pet’s lungs – an often-fatal symptom if left untreated.
• Normal Feline Respiration Rate: 20 – 30 breaths per minute
• Normal Canine Respiration Rate: 10 – 30 breaths per minute depending on the dog’s size
A change in body temperature is typically accompanied by physical symptoms that showcase an increase or drop in what is normal for your pet. Hypothermia, a lowering of body temperature, is often seen in dogs and cats who have been out in the cold for extended periods of time or are suffering from shock caused by injury or illness. You’ll see symptoms such as excessive shivering, pain and inflammation in the extremities, ears, and tails, extreme lethargy, and possibly coma. An increase in body temperature may be as severe as hypothermia, caused by overheating in hot weather, or may simply be a sign of infection and fever.
• Normal Feline Body Temperature: 100.5 – 102.5 degrees F
• Normal Canine Body Temperature: 100.5 – 102.5 degrees F
Checking your pet’s mucous membranes can tell you whether your dog or cat is hydrated properly and whether her heart is functioning normally. Healthy canines and felines should have pink, moist gums, tongues, and eye membranes. If the membranes are tacky or dry, your animal is not drinking enough and may be dehydrated – a potentially serious problem. White, yellow, or blue gums signal a veterinary emergency. Pressing on the gums with your thumb will result in a white blanching effect in that particular spot. If the spot doesn’t return to pink in 1 or 2 seconds, your pet’s blood is not flowing properly and you need to seek veterinary care.
• Normal Feline Mucous Membranes: pink and moist
• Normal Canine Mucous Membranes: pink and moist
Monitoring your pet’s health by learning how to determine her vital signs can be the difference between life and death when acute illness or injury unexpectedly strikes.
This post was written by guest blogger Cate Burnett, RVT