Normal Vital Signs and How to Check Them in Your Pet.

We live with our pets everyday and are therefore in the best position to know what is normal and what is not when it comes to their health.  Like humans, cats and dogs have normal vital signs and checking for variations in those is the first line of defense when they seem ill.

At some point, when your pet is healthy, create a baseline first-aid chart that lists his or her vital signs.  If you have more than one pet, do this for each dog or cat in your home.  Since each pet is an individual, a range of readings may be normal.    This will give you a comparison in the event that you suspect something is wrong and will help you assess how serious the condition might be, if first aid is all that is needed or if treatment is best left to the veterinarian.  The vital sign chart for each of your pets should include the following:


Normal body temperature for dogs and cats ranges between 99° and 102°F at rest.  Strenuous exercise or stress can cause their temp to go up slightly but it should return to normal once they have calmed down.  While a fever may not be dangerous by itself, it can point to more serious underlying problems.  The list below gives various temperatures and what action to take for each one.


106° or higher              EMERGENCY            Call your vet now!  

                                  Cool you pet! 

105°                           High fever                   Call your vet now

104°                          Moderate fever             Call your vet same day

103°                          Moderate fever              Call your vet same day                          

102°                          Normal range                No action                             

101°                          Normal range                No action
100°                          Normal range                No action                             

99°                            Normal range                No action                             

99° to 95°                  Mild Hypothermia          Call your vet same day

Below 95°                  EMERGENCY              Call your vet now!

                                 Warm your pet!


You can take your pet’s temperature rectally, which is the old tried and true method (keep that thermometer separate from yours!), or you can purchase thermometers that get a reading using the animals ear, or, they now have no-contact thermometers for dogs available.  If you choose the tried and true method, have someone help to pet the dog and distract him.  Here’s how to do it:

  • Shake down the mercury until it reads about 96°F.
  • Lubricate the bulb tip with mineral oil, K-Y or petroleum jelly.
  • Grasp the base of your pet’s tail and lift it up.  Insert the thermometer about halfway.  Keep a firm grip on the tail to prevent your pet from escaping or sitting down (ouch!).  If possible, have your pet lie down on his side.
  • After 3 minutes, remove the thermometer, wipe it clean and get the reading.  Be sure to clean the thermometer with rubbing alcohol when finished.

Color of Skin and Gums-Capillary Refill Time

Because skin tone is difficult to see through all the fur, veterinarians use the color of the mucus membranes, like the ‘whites’ of the eyes and the gums above the teeth, to gauge a pet’s health.  For gums, the normal color is pink - anything else calls for immediate veterinary attention or first-aid care.

If your pet has pigmented gums, try to find a non-pigmented pink spot on his gums or lips to use as a test area.  If you can’t find a pink spot there, you will need to go south to the vulva or prepuce (the fold of skin on the end of the penis).


The following is a guide to what the color of your pet’s gums can mean:


Color                                                      What It Means                     Call the Vet?             

Pink                                                         Normal                                 No             

Pale to White                                          Anemia or shock                 Yes, Immediately                   


Blue                                                        Smoke inhalation or             Yes, Immediately              



Bright Cherry Red                                  Carbon monoxide                 Yes, Immediately              

                                                                poisoning or heatstroke.


Yellow                                                    Liver problems                       Yes, same day                          



 Capillaries are tiny blood vessels that give the gums their normal pink color.  You can test the condition of your pet’s blood circulation by doing a capillary refill test.  Here’s how:

  • Lift your pet’s upper lip and press your finger against a non-pigmented pink spot.  This temporarily stops the blood flow to that area.
  • Quickly remove your finger and you will see a white mark on the gum where your finger was.  Count how many seconds it takes for the pink color to return to that white spot – that is the capillary refill time.


The following is a guide to assess your pet’s condition using the capillary refill test:


Refill Time                                What It Means                                     Call the Vet?

1 – 2 seconds                           Normal                                                 No

2 – 4 seconds                           Moderate to poor; possible                  Yes

                                                  dehydration or shock.

More than 4 seconds                EMERGENCY – severe                      Yes, immediately

                                                  dehydration or shock.

Less than 1 second                  EMERGENCY – severe                      Yes, immediately

                                                  heatstroke or shock.


Testing Your Pet for Dehydration


The first sign of dehydration is the loss of the skin’s elasticity.  Cats and dogs have extra loose skin on the tops of their heads and at the bases of their necks – the scruff – that is easy to grab.  When you grab that skin and then release it, it should spring back into a normal position immediately.  The skin at the top of the head is more likely to show this effect, so you may want to test there first.

If your pet is dehydrated, that skin will not bounce back immediately.  With moderate dehydration, the skin will go back slowly, and in severe cases, the skin will remain standing up in a ridge even after you have released it.  In either case, immediate first-aid and veterinary care are required.


Normal Heart and Pulse Rate in Your Pet

Your pet’s normal heart rate is best measured when she is in a relaxed state.  Have her sit or lie on her right side.  Place the palm of your hand on her left side directly behind her elbow.  Once you feel her heartbeat, count the pulses in 15 second intervals.  Multiply this number by 4 to get the beats per minute rate.  Repeat the count two or three times and average them to ensure an accurate reading and to find your pet’s average normal heart rate.

With illness or injury, a slower-than-normal heart rate – bradycardia – can be a sign of heart disease or shock.  Likewise, a racing heart beat can also point to shock.  In either case, prompt medical attention is required. 

The chart below shows the average beats per minute based on your pet’s size:


Pet                                                                   Normal Heart Rate (bpm)

Small dogs (up to 20 lbs.)                                    70 – 180

Medium and large dogs (over 20 lbs.)                 60 – 140

Cats                                                                     120 – 240

Puppies (up to 6 weeks)                                      Up to 220

Kittens (up to 6 weeks)                                        200 – 300


It is a good idea to check your pet’s pulse rate as well to become familiar with how it feels.  It should be strong, and you should feel it at the same time as each heartbeat. An irregular pulse can mean heart problems and a ‘bounding’ pulse or a very weak pulse can indicate shock, weak heart output or a drop in blood pressure.  All of these conditions require immediate medical attention. 

Check your pet’s pulse in the femoral artery, in the crease of the hind leg at the groin.  With your pet lying on his side, place the flat of your fingers in the area until you locate the pulse.  Note that it may be much more difficult to find if your pet is depressed, dehydrated, or has a low blood pressure.  This is why it is a good idea to check it when your pet is healthy so you know what you are looking for.


Normal Respiration Rate in Pets

The normal respiration rate for dogs is 10 to 30 times per minute.  For cats, the rate is 10 to 40 times per minute.  When your pet is resting quietly, anything other than quiet, effortless breathing requires medical attention and possibly artificial respiration. 

Dogs that are hot or exercising breathe faster and may pant up to 200 times per minute.  Panting and open-mouthed breathing in cats are considered danger signs because cats do not use panting routinely as a means to cool off, the way dogs do.  If your cat is panting or breathing with her mouth open, call the vet immediately.

The following is a list of warning signs to look out for:

Respiratory Signs                                   What They Mean                                          Call the Vet?

Effortless breathing,                                 Normal                                                              No                       


 Increased respiratory rate                       First sign of breathing                                       Immediately, if

                                                                 problems                                                           condition is worsening.                          


Excessive panting or                                EMERGENCY –                          

gasping; dogs stand w/                             Progression to early                                         Yes, immediately 

elbows outward, cats sit                            respiratory failure.     

crouched w/ head and

neck extended.


Labored, open-mouthed                           EMERGENCY –                                               Yes, immediately              

breathing and blue gums.                         Pulmonary failure;      

                                                                  pet is suffocating.     

Slowed, shallow or                                   EMERGENCY –                                               Yes, immediately      

stopped breathing;                                   Respiratory collapse;                         

unconsciousness                                      prepare for artificial                  

imminent.                                                  respiration.                     



Assessing Your Pet’s Responsiveness

As you may already know, healthy dogs and cats are pretty alert and responsive to their surroundings.  When they become ill, however, their responsiveness is affected to various degrees.  The less response there is, the more serious the condition.  The following is a guideline to assessing responsiveness:


Level of Consciousness                                             What it Means                                               Call the Vet?                                     

Alert & responsive to owner                                          Normal                                                           No                                       

and outside stimuli; if you 

call him for a treat, he 



Depressed; response slow                                            Common to                                                   Yes, next day,                   

to sight or touch stimulation;                                          many illnesses                                              if the condition                                     

may be sleepy or reluctant                                                                                                                  doesn’t resolve                                       

to move.                                                                                                                                              w/ first-aid


Disoriented; bumps                                                        Probably neuro-                                            Yes, same day           

into objects, stares blindly,                                             logic or inner ear    

walks w/ unsteady gait or in                                           involvement

circles, falls to one side.


Stupor; can be aroused                                                 Neurologic or                                                 Yes, immediately              

only by deep pain                                                          metabolic  problem;           

stimulation (i.e. pinched toes)                                       serious.


Comatose (unable to wake)                                          EMERGENCY –                                             Yes, immediately                         

or having seizures                                                         severe neurologic 

                                                                                      damage or disruption 

                                                                                      from injury, disease, 

                                                                                      or toxin.


Keep in mind that with an injury, fight or flight can kick in as a first reaction and mask slowed responsiveness.  If you pay attention, though, signs of disorientation may become evident.






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