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Vital signs: Knowing how to 'read' your pet could help save its life

Tuesday, January 05, 1999

By Michael Woods, Post-Gazette Washington Bureau

Owners of America's 58 million domestic dogs and 66 million cats should know how to take the pet's "vital signs" - temperature, pulse, respiration rate, color of the gums, and capillary refill time.

Deciding when a pet is sick can be much more difficult than diagnosing a child or other family member. Pets can't describe their pains and other symptoms. Vital signs can help owners to diagnose a sick animal. They can be especially important in helping a veterinarian evaluate the pet's condition on the telephone.

Practice taking the vital signs now, while your pet is healthy. Then you'll be able to do it quickly and expertly if an injury or illness strikes. Practice taking the vital signs when the pet is calm and at rest. Vital signs like temperature and pulse may be elevated in healthy animals that are excited or have just exercised.

Temperature. Normal rectal body temperature in dogs is 102 degrees Fahrenheit and in cats is 101.5. A hot nose is not an accurate indication that a dog or cat has a fever. Use an ordinary rectal thermometer. Lubricate the tip with water-soluble lubricant available on pharmacy shelves, petroleum jelly, or plain water. Insert gently into the rectum to a depth of one-half to one inch.

Pets, of course, hate the procedure, and may scratch or snap. Lots of gentle, soothing, reassuring talk can ease the anxiety. If the pet gets too upset, skip the temperature and try again later. Most pets eventually learn to allow a person to take their temperature.

If the body temperature is abnormally low, try again. Make sure that the thermometer was inserted to the proper depth and remained inside for the length of time recommended on the thermometer instructions.

Pulse. The normal resting heart rate in a dog is 70-120 beats per minute. For a cat, it is 120-140. Place your hand over the left side of the chest, just behind the animal's elbow. Count the number of heart beats in 15 seconds, and multiply by 4. Another method is to gently place your fingers on the inside of a hind leg, sliding them down to the middle of the inner thigh. When you feel a groove, press gently but firmly. You should feel a pulse. Count the beats in 15 seconds and multiply by 4.

Respiration. Healthy dogs breathe 18-34 times per minute at rest and cats breathe 16-40 times. Count the number of breaths in 15 second by watching the animal's chest or nostril movements, or feeling air rushing out of the nostrils. Multiply by 4.

Color of gums. The gums consist of the tissue around the teeth. They also are an indication to the condition of the blood, heart and lungs. Healthy pets (except those with dark pigmentation in the mouth) should have pink gums. Pale whitish gums may mean that the animal is anemic. Yellow gums may mean liver disease. Fever or certain poisons can cause bright red gums.

Capillary refill time (CRT). In healthy dogs and cats, CRT should be about 2 seconds. Measure CRT by pressing a thumb firmly on the gum near a canine tooth. Release and note the whitish fingerprint left behind. Count the number of seconds needed for the healthy pink color to return.

CRT is the time needed for blood to reach the capillaries, the very smallest vessels in the body that deliver oxygen and nutrients directly to cells. CRT measures how well blood and oxygen are getting to cells. A CRT longer than 2 seconds may mean a blood circulation problem, or other disorders such as shock or dehydration.

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