How to Check Your Pet’s Heart Rate and Other Vital Signs

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How to Check Your Pet’s Heart Rate and Other Vital Signs

During a veterinary visit, the first thing your vet will do is conduct a thorough physical exam. This allows him or her to have an initial assessment of your pet’s health condition and detect any physical abnormalities that might indicate an illness or disease. Your vet will check the patient’s physical structure, reflexes, and vital signs such as heart rate, respiratory rate, and body temperature. These will provide enough information for your vet to know if your pet is suffering from any ailment and if diagnostic tests are warranted. Continue reading to learn how to measure your pet’s vital signs at home and know if there might be a problem.

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Your Pet’s Vital Signs

Vital signs provide important information about a dog or cat’s health and can give indications if they’re suffering from any form of illness or health problem. Having a baseline of your pet’s vital sign measurements can help you detect if your dog or cat is suffering from an illness, as any deviation from these established baselines may be indicative of a problem. Several vital signs are being measured during routine veterinary checkups, and being familiar with each can help a pet parent have a good idea of their dog or cat’s general overall health.

1. Respiratory Rate

Respiratory or breathing rate is an important vital sign measuring the rate a dog or cat breathes in a specific time frame. Changes in respiratory rates can give you a clue about whether your pet is ill.

Respiratory rates give direct information about the pet’s respiratory function but can also be an indirect sign of illness not related to the respiratory system. An increase in an animal’s respiratory rate can indicate breathing difficulties, respiratory inflammation, or infection. When a dog or a cat is in pain or distress, their respiratory rate also increases. Stressful conditions can also cause their respiratory rates to increase. Fever is also a common cause of elevated respiratory rates in both cats and dogs.

A decrease in an animal’s respiratory rate can be dangerous, as it indicates severely

compromised breathing, usually seen in cases of shock or severe weakness. A very low respiratory rate warrants immediate veterinary attention.

2. Heart and Pulse Rate

Checking and measuring your pet’s heart and pulse rate can give important information about the animal’s health, as it checks their overall cardiovascular function.

Heart disease can result in either an increased heart rate or a slower than normal beat depending on the specific condition. Consequently, changes in pulse rate can indicate a compromised ability of the heart to circulate blood and can be an indirect measurement of cardiac function in dogs and cats.

Though most cases of abnormal heart and pulse rates are related to cardiovascular diseases, several other situations not connected to heart function can cause changes in these vital signs. Stressful conditions can cause a sudden increase in a dog or cat’s heart rate, which usually normalizes rapidly as soon as the stress has been addressed.

3. Body Temperature

Measuring your pet’s body temperature is vital during a physical exam and provides a significant indication of the animal’s general health. Drastic changes in the animal’s core body temperature can indicate a wide range of health problems, the severity of which can vary from mild hyperthermia to serious and life-threatening conditions.

An increase in the pet’s body temperature, known as hyperthermia, can be caused by either a change in the ambient temperature or actual fever. If addressed quickly, environment-induced hyperthermia does not usually cause serious health problems and can be corrected easily by putting the dog or cat in a cooler place and offering water to help them cool down.

Fever, on the other hand, is characterized by a persistently elevated temperature despite the pet not being subjected to a hot environment. Fever is the body’s defense in response to an infection. When a dog or cat’s body has an infection,

either by a bacterial or viral organism, it will increase its core temperature to kill or suspend the growth of these pathogens and control the spread of infection.

How to Check Your Pet's Vital Signs

Being aware of what important vital signs need to be monitored and how to interpret changes in them is surely a step closer to keeping your pets healthy and detecting health issues before they cause severe problems. Equally important is knowing how and when to take these vital signs, as an improper way of measurement can lead to inaccurate results and incorrect interpretations.

Generally, measuring vital signs is recommended whenever your dog or cat shows changes in their normal behavior. Even a slight deviation from their normal routine can be an indication of illness, and measuring their vital signs will help pet parents assess if there’s a need to bring their pet to the nearest veterinarian.

Respiratory rates can be easily measured by observing the movement of the animal’s chest as it breathes. Counting the number of breaths (1 rise and 1 fall of the chest) within 15 seconds and multiplying it by 4 will give you the average respiratory rate per minute. This should be done in a relaxed and stress-free environment to get a more accurate measurement.

Depending on the size and body condition score of the pet, heart rates can either be measured with just your hand or with the use of a stethoscope. By placing your hand on the animal’s chest, you can feel its heartbeat and count the beats for 15 seconds. Multiplying the result by 4 will give you the average heart rate per minute.

Manually feeling for the heartbeat may be difficult for overweight or obese dogs and cats because of the amount of fat tissue located around the chest area. Using a stethoscope to listen to the heartbeat is more effective and accurate in these cases.

If in doubt about the results you’re getting, it’s best to bring your pet to your veterinarian for a more thorough physical exam.

Body temperature is measured with the use of a rectal thermometer. Unfortunately, because of the presence of fur on the cat and dog’s skin, infrared thermometers are not reliable in getting an accurate measurement of the animal’s temperature. Taking a rectal temperature can provide a more accurate measurement of the patient’s core temperature.

Read more:

How to Examine Your Pet at Home: A Step-By-Step Guide

Examining and Caring for Your Pet’s Ears

A Vet’s Advice: Eye Exams and Eye Care for Your Pets

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Published: 4/8/2022
Dr. Sheena Haney, Veterinarian

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