The easiest way to know if something is wrong with your pet is to know what is right with your pet! You know your pet better than us, and are the one who will have to decide when what is wrong requires a trip to the veterinarian. Some conditions are acute and obvious, and leave little doubt that emergency care is required. Other conditions are subtle or happen over a long period of time, and may be harder to put your finger on. Early recognition of a serious problem can save your pet’s life.
One of the most important duties of a pet owner, and one that is often overlooked in the day to day shuffle of life, is to know what is normal for your pet. The following information gives you a basic idea of how to give your pet a mini exam when they are healthy, so that you have parameters to compare to when you feel they are not well. This can be extremely helpful to your veterinarian in diagnosing your pet’s illness. There are no absolutes however, and if you are ever concerned about your pet’s health, it is always best to contact your veterinarian!
The very first thing to do is to stand back and watch your pet without interacting with them. Their posture, breathing, activity level, and general appearance can tell you a lot. Many pets will try to mask their symptoms when interacting with people.
In general, the nose should be moist, clean, and clear. Abnormal signs include colored discharge or bleeding, dry or cracked skin.
The skin is the largest organ and is an important indicator of health. Petting is a great way to examine your pet’s skin, and it has the added bonus of making them happy! Your pet’s fur should be shiny and smooth; their skin should be soft and unbroken with minimal odor. Abnormal signs include lumps, sores or scabs, patchy fur, oily skin, or foul odor. If you lift up your pet’s skin (such as around the nape of their neck where they usually have more skin), it should drop back in to normal position fairly quickly. If it stays in a “tented” position, this can be a sign of dehydration.
Oh those eyes. They can make you share your tuna sandwich or drop what you’re doing to go for a walk. Take a closer look next time, and you should see eyes that are bright, moist and clear. The pupils should be equal in size, and if you’re able to tell, they should expand and contract equally. The whites of the eyes should only have a few visible blood vessels, and should not have any color to them (such as yellow or red). Abnormal signs can include dull or dry eyes, cloudiness, thick or colored discharge, or a change in color to the whites of the eye.
All the better to hear you (or ignore you) with! Normal ears should be clean and dry, with minimal odor, and your pet should not appear itchy or painful when you touch their ears. Due to the wide variety in ear shapes, sizes and carriage, a lot may depend on what is normal for their breed. Abnormal signs can include scabs, lumps or rashes, discharge or moisture, strong odor, painful or swollen ears. If your pet normally has ears that stand up and one or both are drooping, that can be abnormal as well.
Show us the pearly whites! Your pet’s teeth should be clean and white, with gums that are uniformly pink (unless pigmented). Dental disease, which starts with a little tartar on the teeth and then progresses rapidly from there, can affect the other organ systems, including the heart. Dental health is often overlooked, and very important. Abnormal signs include broken or discolored teeth, plaque and tartar formation, and gums that are pale, very red, or bluish. If your pet has gums that are not pigmented, meaning they are all, or mostly, pink colored, you can do a simple test called a capillary refill time (CRT). Press on the gum with your finger and release quickly. The spot you pressed should blanch, and then refill with color. This provides a crude assessment of how the heart and circulatory systems are working. In other words, it shows how fast the body returns blood to that area. A normal CRT is 1 to 2 seconds. A CRT that is too slow or too fast can indicate a problem.
Depending on breed (we’re talking about you, snub nosed dog owners!), you should generally not be able to hear your pet breathing unless they are panting. Their chest should move easily, and they should appear relaxed while breathing. Abnormal breathing may include unusual noises during respiration, especially if you’ve not heard that noise before (Brachiocephalic breeds, such as pugs, boxers, and bulldogs often have very noisy respiration. For you, it is especially important to learn what "normal" noise for your pet is). Other abnormal signs can include effort to breathe, noticeable involvement of the abdomen during breathing (normally, only the chest wall should be moving), if your pet is unable to breathe comfortably while laying down, or stands with their elbows out or head extended in order to breathe. Any discomfort or effort while breathing warrants an immediate trip to the veterinarian. To calculate the breaths per minute, record the breathing rate for 15 seconds and then multiply by 4. In general, a resting breathing rate is between 15 to 60 breaths per minute. The most important thing is to know what your pet’s normal resting breathing rate is, so that you'll notice if it changes.
Run your hands gently over your pet’s belly, starting just behind the ribs (easiest when they are standing). There should be no lumps or bulges, and no discomfort to your pet. Abnormal signs include lumps, bulges, or pain (if your pet seems painful, stop immediately to protect yourself from being bitten, and see your veterinarian immediately). If your pet’s abdomen feels hard or tense and appears distended, also seek immediate veterinary care.
Pulse and Heart Rate
Learn how to find your pet’s pulse while they are calm and healthy. The best place on a cat or dog is the femoral artery in the groin area. To find it, place your fingers on the inside of the leg, and move your hand upwards until it touches their belly. With mild pressure, move your fingertips back and forth on the inside of the leg until you feel the pulse. If your pet has short or thick legs, this could take a little time, be patient! Count the number of pulses in 15 seconds and multiply by 4. This will give you the pulse rate in beats per minute (bpm). Pulse rate varies widely among species, breeds and individual pets. It can be affected by stress, disease or recent exercise. Do not use the pulse rate as the sole evidence that your pet is sick or healthy, but instead try taking it repeatedly over the course of time so that you have an idea of what range your pet tends to be in. You can compare what their heart rate is when they are calm versus when they are excited. As a broad frame of reference, the normal resting pulse rate for an adult cat is 100 to 160 bpm, and for an adult dog is 60 to 160 bpm. Relaxed cats and relaxed or athletic dogs tend to have slower rates. Once you are able to find the pulse with consistency, you should be able to feel it easily, and it should be strong and regular. Abnormal signs include an unusually high or low rate, or a pulse that is weak, irregular or hard to locate.
Taking your pet's temperature can be useful, but only do this if you are comfortable and if your pet will tolerate it, do not risk getting bitten. Dogs tend to be more amenable then cats, but please use your best judgment. Use a digital rectal thermometer; they can be inexpensively purchased at a pharmacy. Lubricate the thermometer with petroleum jelly. Gently and slowly insert the thermometer into the rectum about 1 or 2 inches. If it does not slide in easily, do not force it. A normal temperature is usually between 100F and 102.5F, and the thermometer comes out mostly clean. An abnormal temperature is below 100F or above 103F, or has blood, diarrhea, or black, tarry stool on the thermometer.
Know what is normal for your pet. Keep a record of what is normal, and when something changes. Watch your pet closely so you know when something is wrong, and take them to the veterinarian for yearly wellness exams, and any time you feel there is something wrong. This guide is for general reference, it does not take the place of a veterinary exam. Never hesitate to contact a veterinarian regarding your pet’s health!