Author: Luana Battaglia, Andrea Sinewe and Stefanie Stobbe | Read time: 7 min
Chances are you have heard someone saying “let’s check the vitals” referring to a person or an animal. But after all, what does that mean? Vital signs are parameters that can be observed or measured and represent the performance of major organs in the body. This means that if they are normal, they are an indication of good health. However, if there is a big change in one or more of them, something about the individual´s health needs attention. By measuring the vital signs, it is possible to very quickly detect changes that could put life at risk.
A veterinarian will assess your pet´s vital parameters during the physical examination. Of course, a professional can obtain much more detailed information on each parameter by using instruments and according to their experience. The good news is that you can learn to check some of these vitals too! The Tierarztpraxis Bärenwiese Team will help you to understand more about them and how to measure them.
First things first: What are the vital signs?
The vital parameters in dogs and cats that can easily be assessed by owners are the gum colour, breathing (or respiratory) rate, heart rate, pulse and temperature. The figure below shows you where to find them:
It is important to check and record your pet’s vital parameters on a normal day when they are healthy and at rest. This is recommended because several factors can temporarily alter vital signs, such as physical activity, stress or anxiety, ambient temperature, etc. This will allow you to objectively compare the previous normal data with the new altered data in the event of illness or accident, and provide the veterinary team with valuable information when you arrive at the practice.
How do I check the vital parameters and what is normal?
Below you will find a general guide on how to measure vital parameters, what their normal values are and what they can indicate if they are altered. It is worth remembering that in illness, there will usually be changes in two or more vital signs along with other symptoms. So just measure them, record them and don’t worry about a diagnosis. Keep calm and leave that job to us at Tierarztpraxis Bärenwiese!
- Where: Mouth
- How: Lift your pet’s cheeks and look at the gums
- Normal: bubble-gum or powdery pink
There are many unhealthy gum colors such as light pink, white, dark red, brownish, bluish, purple, light yellow or yellow. The stronger shades of each color and white usually indicate extreme situations and are typically accompanied by other symptoms, such as a purple gum with respiratory distress. If you see any of these, do not hesitate to seek the immediate assistance of a vet!
BREATHING (RESPIRATORY) RATE
- Where: chest / flank
- How: observe or place your hand on the animal’s chest or flank and use a stopwatch to count how many times the animal has breathed in one minute. A complete breathing movement is composed of a breath in and a breath out; a rising and a falling of the chest or flank equals one breath
- Normal rates (average): dogs: 10 to 30 breaths per minute
cats: 20 to 40 breaths per minute
An increased respiratory rate, regardless of normal causes such as physical exercise or heat, may indicate heart disease, lung disease or pain. It may also indicate deterioration if the animal is already being treated for any of these conditions.
- Where: on the left side of the chest, where the elbow meets the chest
- How: place your hand on that area and feel the heartbeats. Use a stopwatch to count how many beats in 15 seconds, then multiply this number by 4 to get the heartbeats per minute
- Normal rates (average):
small dogs: 80 to 120 beats per minute
large dogs: 60 to 100 beats per minute
cats: 140 to 220 beats per minute
If you detect a lower or higher heart rate in your animal, please contact a veterinarian immediately!
- Where: on the femoral artery, which is located on the inside of and towards the middle of the animal’s thigh, extending from where the leg joins the body almost to the knee
- How: place your index and middle fingers and gently feel for the pulsing of the femoral artery (much like you would feel your own pulse on your wrist). You can compare it to the heart rate by placing your other hand on the heart region at the same time
- Normal features: a regular rhythm that accompanies the heartbeat, easy to find
The arterial pulse is the expanding and contracting of the body’s arteries as the heart pumps and therefore needs to match the heart rate.
- Where: rectum, just below the base of the tail
- How: gently insert approximately 1 cm of a lubricated digital thermometer into the rectum of the animal and wait until it beeps
- Normal values: 38.3 to 39.2°C
In dogs and cats we recommend taking the rectal temperature as it gives the most accurate values compared to other techniques. There is no reason to be afraid of this method, as the diameter of the thermometer is much smaller than that of the stool. It is safe to use Vaseline or any type of cooking oil as a lubricant, such as Olive or Coconut Oil.
Small variations in body temperature may occur depending on the environmental temperature or if your pet is excited, for example. But if the body temperature is less than 37.0°C (hypothermia) or above 40.0°C (hyperthermia or fever), your pet needs to be examined and treated urgently!
To make your life easier, we have prepared the table below, which summarizes all the information necessary you need to carry out a good check-up:
Some parameters can be tricky or more difficult to measure without instruments, such as heart rate and pulse. Therefore, we encourage you to practice taking your pet’s vital signs multiple times at home and keep a record. It’s a great way to gain confidence and peace of mind that you have a better understanding of your furry friend’s health and well-being.
However, in case of doubt, do not despair but also do not waste time: take your animal for a veterinary evaluation!
Do you need more help? Contact us and schedule an appointment!