SUMMARY: Do you know how to assess your dog’s vital signs at home? Capturing a baseline of your dog’s normal heart rate, body temperature, gum color, respiratory rate, and capillary refill time just may help you save your dog’s life someday. By the end of this article, you’ll have a clear understanding of the five parameters of your dog’s vital signs, what’s considered normal, and how to assess each one. Integrative veterinarian Dr. Julie Buzby is here to help you keep a “pulse” on your dog’s health.
Vital sign #1: Learning the normal heart rate for a dog at rest
Let’s start by assessing a key vital sign in dogs: your dog’s heart rate. The term “heart rate” literally means the heart itself beating. It is measured by counting the number of times the heart beats in a minute. Beats per minute range based on the size of the dog:
- Small breed: 90 – 140 beats per minute
- Medium breed: 70 – 110 beats per minute
- Large breed: 60 – 90 beats per minute
How to find and assess your dog’s heart rate
Before you assess your dog’s heart rate at home, make sure that your dog has not been active, excited, or stressed. A dog who has been exercising or excited will have higher numbers. It’s important to capture the resting baseline. Here’s how:
- Once your dog is relaxed and calm, the best place to find your dog’s heart rate is the left side of the chest, right behind the dog’s elbow. If you’re looking at the dog, look from the left side and you’ll see the dog’s elbow.
- If you have a stethoscope, you can use it to count the beats. Otherwise, put the flat palm of your hand on your dog’s chest wall. You should be able to pick up the heart rate. If your dog prefers to lie down, have him or her lie on the right side. Then take the forelimb and flex the elbow back—where it touches the chest wall is a good guideline.
- The easiest way to gather your dog’s heart rate is to count the number of beats per 15 seconds and then multiply by four. Of course, you can count beats for 30 seconds and multiply by two, but it will be the longest 30 seconds of your life. 🙂
Vital Sign #2: Understanding the normal body temperature for dogs
Body temperature is another important vital sign in dogs. What is considered a normal body temperature for a dog? Interestingly, it is higher than that of humans, which we know is 98.6ºF. A normal body temperature for a dog ranges between 100º – 102.5ºF. It is important to note that a dog who has been exercising will have a higher body temperature—possibly even 103ºF. Incidentally, a racing Greyhound may have a temperature as high as 105ºF. This body temperature is concerning to me since it is in a range that is associated with heatstroke in dogs.
How to take your dog’s temperature
- Choose a time when your dog is happy, healthy, and has not been vigorously exercising.
- Gather your tools: a standard digital thermometer, a water-soluble lubricant such as KYJelly, and a friend or family member to help distract your dog.
- While your helper distracts your dog, gently lift up the dog’s tail. Carefully insert the tip of the lubricated thermometer into your dog’s rectum.
- Leave the thermometer in place for about a minute or until it beeps.
- Gently remove the thermometer to read the results. This will be your dog’s baseline temperature. Also, be sure to give your dog plenty of head rubs and praise for a job well done!
Vital sign #3: Looking at the mucous membranes (a dog’s gum color)
What color should your dog’s gums be? The mucous membranes (your dog’s gums) should be pink and moist. I would encourage you to get in the habit of gently lifting your dog’s upper lip to check the color of your dog’s gums. Many dogs have dark spots on the gums which can be normal pigmentation. By frequently looking at your dog’s mouth, you’ll have a visual roadmap of what your dog’s normal pink gums look like. Any color of white, grey, purple, or red is significant—a sign of a veterinary emergency.
Vital sign #4: Knowing the normal respiratory rate in dogs
Next, your dog’s respiratory rate is another important vital sign. Respiratory rate in dogs is measured by the number of breaths per minute. A dog’s normal respiratory rate is 10 to 35 breaths per minute.
How to measure your dog’s respiratory rate
- Choose a time when your dog is relaxed, healthy, and has not been exercising.
- While your dog is resting, watch for the rise and fall of his or her breath. Each corresponding rise and fall counts as one breath.
- As an alternate method, you can put your hand gently in front of your dog’s nostrils and feel the air pushing out with each exhale.
- Count the number of breaths per 30 seconds and then multiply by two. This is your dog’s baseline respiratory rate.
Vital sign #5: Checking capillary refill time (CRT) in dogs
Checking your dog’s capillary refill time is the fifth parameter of learning your dog’s vital signs. Capillaries are the tiny blood vessels that run in your dog’s mucous membranes. When you press against the gum tissue and then release, you’ve pushed the blood out of the capillaries causing the gum to appear white. As the capillaries refill with blood, the gums return to pink. Capillary refill time (CRT) is the time it takes for a dog’s gum color to return from white to pink after being pressed with a fingertip. It’s an important tool in assessing your dog’s normal vital signs.
How to assess your dog’s capillary refill time
While you’re checking the color of your dog’s gums, take a moment to check your dog’s capillary refill time. Firmly press against your dog’s gum tissue with your fingertip and then quickly release. Watch how long it takes for the gum to turn back to pink from white. One to two seconds is considered a normal CRT.
Pro Tip: Dispelling the cold nose myth
Here’s a bonus tip for you: A dog’s cold nose is not an accurate way to assess your dog’s health. Not only can your dog’s nose be a variety of temperatures and moistness levels, but it also may vary throughout the day.
Learn your dog’s vital signs
You know your dog better than anyone else. By taking the time to establish a healthy baseline for your canine companion’s heart rate, body temperature, respiratory refill rate, and CRT, you’re ensuring your dog has the healthiest life possible. If your dog is ever sick or injured, you can communicate to your veterinarian how your dog’s vital signs have changed—and help ensure the best outcome possible for your loyal companion.
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