Being familiar with a dog’s vital signs is one easy, important way you can help a dog in distress. Whenever you have concerns about a dog in your care, you can check their vital signs to provide crucial information to a veterinarian. Also, knowing how to periodically check and record normal vital signs like a dog’s heart rate will give you a baseline of what is “normal” for that dog in case of an accident or illness.
The three main vitals you want to measure are the heart rate, breathing rate, and body temperature.
Measuring a dog's heart rate
A normal heart rate for dogs is between 60 and 140 beats per minute.
To determine a dog’s heart rate:
- Put your hand to his chest
- Count how many pulses you feel in 15 seconds
- Multiply by 4 to get the number of beats per minute
If you have trouble detecting heart beats in the chest area, try placing two fingers on the middle of the dog’s thigh near where the leg joins the body. There, you should be able to feel the femoral artery pulsing each time the heart beats.
A dog's rate of respiration
Next, you want to determine the dog’s rate of respiration, at rest (in other words, not right after a game of fetch). A healthy dog, depending on breed, takes between 12 and 24 breaths per minute.
To measure breathing rate:
- Count the number of times the chest expands in 10 seconds
- Multiply by 6
You can do this either by watching the dog or resting your hand on the ribs. Normal respirations should not make any noise, and should require very little effort. Of course, if you are caring for a brachycephalic breed like a pug or English bulldog, a little snort from time to time can be expected.
Checking a dog's body temperature
The final vital sign to measure in a pet is body temperature; a normal temperature is around 38.1 degrees Celcius (100.5 degrees Fahrenheit) to 39.2 degrees Celcius (102.5 degrees Fahrenheit).
And yes, the best measure of true body temperature is taken rectally, so you might want to distract the dog with a treat or toy while you take the temperature. If you (or the dog) aren’t comfortable with that particular method, the next best tool is an ear thermometer or “touch-free” infrared thermometer that is made specifically for animals.
As important as a dog’s vitals can be, his or her medical history (including ALL current medications) is just as, if not more, important for the treating veterinarian. A dog’s regular veterinarian should have this information, but be sure to double-check about this with the owner.
Knowing how to take a dog’s vital signs is an important key to monitoring and managing any dog’s health, and it takes less than five minutes to do. It’s one more way you can become an even better, more responsible pet sitter!
Thanks to Dr. Rebecca Jackson for this guide.
Dr. Rebecca Jackson, DVM, is a staff veterinarian for Petplan Pet Insurance and works as a relief veterinarian for hospitals in the Philadelphia area. She has also practiced in Tacoma, Washington, and Richmond, Virginia, where she served as a civilian veterinarian at the Fort Lee Veterinary Treatment Facility.