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  • Writer's pictureCameron Jones

Vital Signs: The Baseline for Pet Health

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Hello, Pet Parents! I'm Dr. Cameron Jones, a small animal veterinarian and the founder of Happy's Vet. Today, we're focusing on the importance of knowing your pet's vital signs as a baseline for their overall well-being.

I recommend that owners monitor their own pet's vital signs when they are relaxed at home so that they can know when something is wrong. Keeping a journal of your pet's vital signs twice a year when they are young and monthly in the golden years is the next level kind of pet parenting!

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Mentation: Mental Health is the first thing that your vet will notice when your pet walks into the exam room.

Pets that are "Bright, Alert, and Responsive" (BAR) or "Quiet, Alert, Responsive" (QAR) are considered normal. The terms "Depressed" and "Lethargic" indicate a need for medical attention. Bright and Quiet are subjective terms. A pet is bright if they are active and engaged and Quiet if they are resting but otherwise normal. A pet who is Bright may be wagging his tail or hissing and growling so bright does not mean happy. The term bright or quiet indicates that they are engaged in their surroundings. And a quiet or bright pet might be Alert. Alert pets notice noises, smells, and being touched. A quiet pet who does not notice stimuli like noises and smells and being touched would be considered Dull. That does not mean they aren't intelligent, it means they are not mentally alert. Sleeping or sedated are normal non-alert states. Responsive means that they actually respond to the stimuli. A depressed dog might not look up when you call her name or a lethargic cat might look at you when you open the can of food but he won't get up and come to the food bowl. If a pet is awake (alert) and responsive, then they are normal.

Pro Tip: Depressed animals are not sad, they have low energy!

Temperature: Setting the Foundation

The normal body temperature for dogs and cats ranges from 99.5 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Exercise and excitement/ stress can change this vital sign so it is best to do this when they are relaxed. Ear thermometers are a handy tool but remember to ease your pet into it. Here is a link to one that I know works well.

Pro Tip: There is a beep when the button is pressed and pets don't love it. Run a few trial exercises without the beep. Insert the thermometer gently down the ear canal, and reward with a treat. Once your pet is comfortable, activate the beep, and give another treat. Keep in mind that ear thermometers can be off by a degree, so a rectal thermometer may be needed for a more accurate reading.

Heart/ Pulse Rate

A normal heart rate ranges between 60 and 140 beats per minute (bpm) for dogs and 140-220 bpm for cats. Heart rate correlates with your pet's size with the smallest animals having the highest heart rates. The tiny Etruscan shrew has a heart rate of 1,500 bpm and a blue whale may have a heart rate as low as 2 bpm! It's crucial to measure this when your pet is relaxed as rates can elevate due to exercise or excitement. In clinical practice animals are always elevated so you have the unique ability to learn your animal's true normal. In my veterinary practice, at the hospital, most dogs are between 110 and 140, and cats between 160-200. So, your pet's heart rate at home depends on them - so measure it!

How to Measure: To feel a heartbeat, place your finger pads between the 3rd and 4th rib, where the elbow meets the body. Cats and small dogs are easiest because their chests are small and you can place your hand under the chest and fold your fingers on one side and the thumb on the other and find the heartbeat between your fingers and thumb. Overweight dogs and barrel-chested breeds like bulldogs are more challenging. If you cannot feel the heartbeat on the left side of the chest usually works but if not, try the pulse

Pulse: (Check out this YouTube video for a quick tutorial) on the inside of the thigh. Remember to use the pads of your middle two fingers rather than the tip and never use your thumb. Count the beats or pulses over 15 seconds and multiply by four to get the per-minute rate.

ProTip: When you start out, give yourself a full minute to count the beats or pulses. Then gradually move down to 30 seconds and finally 15 seconds. You can even do a six-second count and multiply times ten but the longer you feel it, the more accurate it will be.

Respiratory Rate: More Than Just Breaths

A normal respiratory rate at rest for cats and dogs is between 15 and 32. A pet's respiratory rate can significantly increase with exercise, which is perfectly normal. Panting can also indicate various states including excitement, anxiety, or being hot. Elevated respiratory rates at rest, may be a concern especially if it is elevated for a prolonged period of time or accompanied by abdominal breathing, open mouth breathing, loud, noisy breathing, wheezing, grunting, or if the gums are pale or blue.

By observing the chest as it rises and falls over 15 seconds and then multiplying by four, you should have an accurate respiratory rate. It is also best to observe how the abdomen moves with each breath. When pets are having trouble, they may have an exaggerated motion in their abdominal muscles. Cats may have additional movement of their bellies when they purr so don't be fooled, that is just a happy kitty.

If you have an iPhone, you can download this application:

If you have an Android, then try this application:

Mucus Membrane: The Health and Hydration Indicator

The gums are also called mucus membranes and should be a pale pink color. The mucus membrane is a special tissue because it is a thin covering over tiny blood vessels called capillaries. So the color of the gum reflects the presence of and color of the blood. Pale gums can indicate anemia or respiratory trouble. Blue gums are an emergency. They should also be slightly moist, which indicates proper hydration. Dry gums can signal dehydration. To measure Capillary Refill Time (CRT), gently lift the lip and press down to blanch the color away, and then lift your finger and count the seconds it takes to return to its original color. It should take between 1 and 2 seconds for this to happen.

Pro Tip: Make sure that you don't pull the lip up too tight causing the gum to appear pale. Also, many pets have pigmented gums but you can usually find a pink place if you search around the mouth. If not, then you might have to skip this vital sign.

Body Weight/ Body Condition Score

Other important parameters to track include body weight. A baby scale works well on small animals. Larger pets can be weighed while you hold your pet. Weigh yourself and then weigh yourself holding your pet and record the difference. This scale is accurate for tiny babies and adjusts to hold a human plus the largest animal that you can fit! You can set the scale to pounds with fractions or pounds and ounces or in kilograms. Veterinary clinics often weigh pets in pounds with fractions and convert it to kilograms in the medical record for easier dosing of medications. Whatever you choose, stay consistent in your record-keeping.

Can't hold your Great Dane and step on a scale? Instead, use the Body Condition Score System. Purina has a chart for evaluating dogs' and cats' body weights by looking at their Body Condition Scores. (BCS) .

Click on the images to see how to assess your pet's Body Condition Score. The website has the downloadable form of these charts as well.

Keep a Log, Impress Your Vet

Now that you know what's normal for your pet, track it in a journal.

I am always impressed when an owner has their pet records in a neat and organized binder. Keeping a journal can give you an early indication that something is wrong so that you can react quickly. A journal of your pet's normal values can also be a super helpful tool for your veterinarian as well. Track your pet's vitals, body weight, and other key things such as the name of the diet, the amount you feed them daily, the name of treats, and all medications including over-the-counter supplements. List the medication name and strength and the amount that you give, how often and when you started it, and when you discontinued it (if it applies). This is a helpful organizer that I have seen clients use.

Happy's Journal

September 10, 2023

Bright Alert Responsive (BAR)

Heart Rate/ Pulse: 120,

Respiratory Rate (RR): 32

Mucus Membrane (mm): Pink and Moist

Capillary Refill Time (CRT) < 2 seconds

Body Weight: 12 pounds/ 5.45kg

Diet: Skin Support 1/4c twice daily

Current Medications: None

Now you are well-equipped to track your pet's health!

Show your pet's medical journal to your vet during your next visit. They'll be impressed!

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