How can I tell if my dog is sick?” It’s a common question that arises among dog owners, but few pet owners actually know how to check and monitor a dog’s vital signs. Instead, most turn to old wives tales, like checking to see if the dog’s nose is dry or cold – notably, the wetness or temperature of a dog’s nose is not an indication of illness or health.
Fortunately, there are a few things to check if you suspect your dog is sick. The following vital signs and other physical indicators should be checked every few hours and the findings should be written down. Writing down a dog’s temperature and other vitals will help pet owners to determine if the dog’s condition or illness is getting worse.
When checking the following canine vital signs, it is best to check them when the dog is at rest, but not immediately after waking from sleep. Checking a dog’s vitals right after the dog awakens from sleep or right after exercise will skew the results.
Check the Dog’s Temperature
Begin by checking the dog’s temperature. This must be done rectally, ideally with a little bit of Vaseline on the thermometer tip.
A normal temperature for a dog is between 100.5 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Check the Dog’s Gums for Color and Moistness
The dog’s gums should be pink in color. With a healthy dog’s gums, the shade of pink will vary from a light pink, to a darker salmon color.
If the dog’s gums are pale or discolored, this indicates a serious problem. Unhealthy gum colors in a dog include white, grey, yellowish, brick red or blue.
When checking a dog’s gums, the pet owner should also check the moistness of the gums. Slick, moist gums are a good, healthy sign. Dry, sticky gums indicate dehydration – a potentially life-threatening problem in dogs and other pets.
Check Capillary Refill Time in the Dog’s Gums
Checking capillary refill time is another way to monitor your dog’s circulation. Poor circulation can occur due to heart problems, shock and serious illness.
Check capillary refill time by pressing a finger firmly to the dog’s gums. This will force the blood out of the tiny blood vessels. Remove the finger from the dog’s gums and pet owners will see that the place where they pressed down will be lighter than the rest of the gums.
It should take no longer than 1.5 seconds for the dog’s gums to return to normal color after releasing pressure. If it takes longer than 1.5 seconds for the dog’s gums to return to normal color after applying pressure with a finger, this can indicate poor circulation and/or low blood pressure – a serious cause for concern.
If no detectable color change occurs when pressure is removed from the gums, this indicates a serious problem – extremely pale gums and poor circulation, which is cause for a visit to the veterinarian’s emergency room.
Check the Dog’s Heart Rate
A dog’s normal heart rate will vary depending on size and age.
Young puppies and small toy dogs will have a faster heart rate, with an average around 180 beats per minute.
Larger dogs will have a slower normal heart rate, somewhere between 60 beats per minute for a giant breed dog and 160 beats per minute for a medium sized dog.
Note that checking the heart rate – directly above the heart – is different from checking pulse in the extremities. When checking the dog’s pulse, expect a slightly lower number. Normal pulse is between 60 (for a large dog) and 120 (for a small dog).
Check the Dog’s Respiration
Respiration also varies depending on the dog’s size. Smaller dogs will have a faster respiration rate, while larger dogs will have a slower rate of respiration. Normal respiration is between 10 to 30 breaths per minute.
Check the Dog’s Skin to Monitor for Dehydration
A sick dog will often be dehydrated, which only makes the situation worse.
Check a dog for dehydration by pinching the skin at the dog’s scruff. Pull the skin upwards into a “tent” and then release.
If a dog is dehydrated, the skin will take several seconds to return to normal; a healthy dog’s skin will immediately flatten out since it’s maintained its elasticity. The longer it takes the dog’s skin to return to normal, the more dehydrated the dog is.
As previously mentioned, a dehydrated dog will also have dry, sticky gums instead of the slick, wet gums seen in healthy dogs.