Normal Vital Signs and How To Obtain Them
In order to determine if there is a problem, you should be familiar with your dog’s vital signs. It is good practice to routinely monitor these vitals, especially before and after exercise.
Respirations or breaths per minute:
• Normal resting rate = 12-24 breaths/min, count the number of times the chest expands in 10 seconds (either by watching or resting your hand on the ribs) and multiply times 6.
• Panting is different than an increase in normal respirations and to get an accurate count respiratory rate should be evaluated when the dog is not panting.
• Normal respirations require very little effort.
• If the dog is breathing hard, try and observe if it is harder to breathe in or breathe out (most respiratory problems cause more difficulty breathing in)
• Normal breathing should not be associated with much noise.
• If a snoring noise is heard it could indicate a problem in the trachea or upper airway (larynx, pharynx or nose), unless you own a bulldog or other flat faced breed.
• Normal lung sounds usually cannot be heard without a stethoscope.
• If abnormal (e.g. crackling, wheezing, or popping) noises can be heard from the chest, medical evaluation is warranted.
Heart or Pulse rate:
• Normal pulse rate in dogs is between 60 and 140 beats per min.
• Larger dogs and more athletic dogs tend to have slower normal heart rates. It is important to know your dog’s normal heart rate. The heart rate can be counted by feeling the beat of the heart at the 3-5th rib.
• The pulse rate should be the same as the heart rate unless there is a heart problem (an irregular rhythm) and can be taken in the groin (at the femoral triangle).
• A heart rate persistently greater than 160 bpm (at rest) may be associated with serious medical problems and should be evaluated.
• If the heart rate is too slow, it may lead to fainting and may be a sign of an underlying problem that should be evaluated.
Heart or Pulse rhythm:
The normal rhythm is usually regular: however in many dogs the heart rate will slow down and speed up with the breathing. If the rhythm or the strength of the beat or pulse is variable, an EKG can help identify if there is a problem.
The strength of the pulse should be similar to the strength of your own pulse; however, an even better comparison is to monitor your dog’s pulse regularly and be familiar with all of your dog’s vital signs at rest and after work.
Mucous membrane color:
• The gums of a dog should be pink and moist.
• If the gums are pigmented you should become familiar with the mucous membranes of the prepuce or vulva so you can evaluate for potential problems.
• White or pale gums can be a sign of shock or low red blood cells. Blue gums (cyanosis) are from low blood oxygen (hypoxia).
• Very dark red gums can be seen with heat stroke, sepsis (a blood infection) or potentially carbon monoxide poisoning.
• Yellow gums are a sign of either a liver problem or destruction of red blood cells.
• Little bruises on the gums (called petecchia) are a sign that the blood platelets are not working properly to help the blood clot.
• If the gums are dry it may be a sign of dehydration.
Capillary refill time (CRT):
• This test is what you do when you push on your fingernail, watch it blanch and then see how long it takes for the blood to return.
• The same test is done on the mucous membranes of the dog. Normal CRT is 1-2 seconds.
• If the CRT is longer than 2 seconds then there is a problem with getting the blood to circulate properly. Very fast capillary refill time can be seen with heat stroke or sepsis.
• Normal rectal temperature is 100.5°F to 102.5°F.
• A low body temperature may be associated with exposure or shock.
• Wrap the dog in blankets and put in a warm environment but do not use heating pads.
• Shock requires medical attention.
• Temperatures of >106°F can be life-threatening and have severe consequences even if the temperature is reduced to normal.
• In the dog with heat stroke (over-exertion or excessively hot environment), a cooling (but not cold) bath should be started.
• Once the temperature drops to 103°F, cooling should be stopped.
• The dog should been seen for immediate veterinary evaluation.
• Dehydration can be a consequence of activity, especially in the heat, loss of fluid (vomiting, diarrhea, excessive urination) or failure to drink sufficiently.
• Dry mucous membranes, loss of skin turgor and dull eyes are all signs of dehydration, but may not be evident until dehydration is severe.
• Prevention of dehydration is the best and safest plan.
• No one knows your dog’s attitude better than you.
• Changes in levels of alertness or drive may signify a problem.
• Many drugs and toxins can lead to hyperexcitability. Depressed mental states can be part of many disease processes.
• Recording your dog’s vital signs regularly will be invaluable to your ability to evaluate subtle changes and recognize problems.
• If your dog is not right or has been injured, baseline vital signs are invaluable.
• Following an injury or medical problem, obtain and record vital signs regularly during transportation to medical care.