Learning to check your dog or cat’s vitals can help assess his degree of pain, injury or illness, even help you catch a problem early and prompt you to get necessary veterinary help! Learn what is normal for your pet by checking vitals on 3-5 random days this month.  Then record the average or median numbers to establish a baseline.  Do realize as pets grow larger or age, respiration and pulse, may slow, but the more you know what is normal for your pet, the more quickly you can determine something ‘not quite right’ and obtain professional medical care.


The pulse is the rhythmic movement of blood through an artery.  Arteries are the largest vessels carrying life-giving blood and oxygen through your dog or cat’s body.  The heart beats (pumps) and the blood moves, pulsing through the body.

  • Place the ball of two fingers (not your thumb) on the depression found in your pet’s inner upper thigh/groin area, over the Femoral Artery.
  • Count the beats for 30 seconds and double the number to get his pulse rate.
  • If you have difficulty, place the palm of your hand over the left side of your dog’s chest just behind his elbow to feel the heart beat.


Respiration is the bringing in and releasing of oxygen (and other elements) into the lungs from the outside air.  One inhalation and one exhalation combined equals one breath for the purpose of our counting.

  • Observe or place your hand over the animal’s chest while he is resting to count the number of times the chest rises and falls (inhales and exhales).


As far as temperature goes, of course your pet should be in a temperate climate, similar to one that keeps you feeling your best, but the measure we are talking about here is body heat.  For humans, we are 98.6°F on average when we are healthy however, if your pet is 98.6°F…he’s in a whole lot of trouble!  On average, a dog or cat’s body temperature should be 101°F (for my metric friends, that is 38.3° Celsius), or at least falling within the range of 100.4° F- 102.5° F (38° C – 39.16° C).

  • Lift your dog or cat’s tail up and to the side after lubricating the tip of a digital thermometer with K-Y, aloe vera, vitamin E or petroleum-type jelly.
  • Gently insert thermometer ½” – 1” into rectum (slightly angled upward) and wait for beep according to instrument’s directions.
  • If you use an ear thermometer, the reading could be slightly lower than mentioned above, simply because the area near the brain should not be the hottest area of your pet’s body.  Use a pet-specific ear thermometer however, as dogs and cats have an “L” shaped ear canal and you’ll want to get an accurate reading.

NOTE:  Feeling your dog’s nose to determine temperature is not an accurate measure.




Like the planet earth, dogs, cats and humans are 3/4 water and require a good fresh supply daily.  To determine hydration:




  • Tugor Test:  Gently pinch a fold of skin at nape of neck and release.  The skin should quickly fall back into place if your dog is well hydrated.
  • For most pets, but especially loose-skinned breeds and older pets whose skin may have lost elasticity, I prefer to feel the gums.  Lift the lip or flews at the side of the mouth (it is uncomfortable for most pets if you lift the gums in the front), and with your finger, gently feel.  If the gums are sloppy wet, your pet is well hydrated, but if they are dry or sticky, encourage you pet to drink and observe if medical attention is needed.


Checking Capillary Refill Time is a layperson’s way of checking circulation, how well blood is perfusing throughout the organs and tissues of the body – obviously, essential to life!  Like arteries are the largest vessels carrying blood and oxygen throughout, the capillaries are the smallest, often found in the extremities and mucus membranes.  Think of when you yourself have been in a cold movie theatre, concert hall or other location…typically, your nose, fingers and toes get cold first.  Being warm-blooded (like our dogs and cats), our bodies self-regulate to a point without us ever thinking about it.  Blood is zapped from those areas to our major organs to assure our survival.  Should you lose a fingertip to frostbite, you’ll be okay, but if your liver was to freeze up, not so much. When there is a good blood flow to these extremities, we extrapolate then that there is good blood flow (or circulation) to the major organs as well.  To check how long it takes for a capillary to refill (once you’ve released pressure diminishing the flow),

  • Carefully lift animal’s lip and press on gums, above teeth, with your index finger until your gums turn white or lighten.
  • Release pressure and color should return to the gums in 1-2 seconds.
  • If it takes color longer than 2 seconds to return, increase circulation by slightly elevating pet’s hind-quarters with a pillow (unless you suspect a back injury or bleeding from the head or chest) and wrap a blanket around him to keep in body heat as you immediately transport to veterinary help.


NOTE:  In dark gummed pets, it may be easier to determine at the mucus membrane in the lower eyelid.  Gently pull and turn downward, and if you see a good healthy pink, YAY!  If not, like above, get to medical help!

Pink = healthy

Red = potential heatstroke

Pale/White = anemic, excessive blood loss or cardiac arrest

Grey/Blue (Cyanotic) = breathing difficulty or pulmonary arrest

Yellow (Icteric) = Liver disease or zinc toxicity



And of course, keep your pet’s at a healthy weight.  Being just a few pounds overweight can lead to heart, lung, kidney and joint issues and shorten your pet’s life by up to 18 months! Ask your veterinarian what the best weight is for your dog or cat, but you should be able to easily feel the ribs, from the side see the lower abdomen tucked up higher than the chest and looking down from above, a slight waistline.

For more information, sign up for a PET FIRST AID CLASS on this website and/or get your own copy of THE PET SAFETY BIBLE (beginning on page 115) – coming soon in DOG and CAT editions.

Watch video here:

Most of these vitals can also be checked on other species, and I have classes and books for that too:



Basic Bird First Aid




First Aid Basics for Rabbits & Pocket Pets





 For 20 years Denise Fleck’s Sunny-dog Ink motto has been “Helping people to help their pets,” and she has…personally having taught close to 20,000 pet lovers animal life-saving skills and millions more on “The Doctors,” CNN, “Kirstie Alley’s Big Life,” Animal Planet and other TV shows.  Denise is a frequent conference speaker, developed a line of pet first aid kits, written a dozen books and now offers classes online.  

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