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It is very helpful to be familiar with your pets normal vital signs and to be able to perform a basic physical examination on your pet. In this video we share the steps of a basic routine physical examination, so that you can know what normal looks like and to help you be more skilled at recognizing problems should they arise.

2.2 Pet Physical Exam

It’s really helpful to be able to do a basic physical exam and to be able to collect vital signs for your pet.

  • Familiarize yourself with what’s normal
  • Practice and monitor for changes
  • Keep a log of vital signs
  • Practice your exam as often as possible

This table shows typical normal values but it’s most helpful to practice frequently and keep a log to monitor for changes and trends.

A lot of pets with breathing or heart problems will have their respiratory rate checked multiple times a day. If you notice changes in your pet’s energy, level appetite, water consumption, etc., that can be a sign of an early problem.

Other parameters to monitor:
  • Energy level
  • Appetite
  • Water consumption
  • Weight
  • Urination
  • Defecation

Physical exam & vital signs

General appearance: “Sit, shake, do you want a treat, do you know any tricks?” can tell you a lot.

Is the pet ambulatory, alert, responsive, able to see/hear, sit comfortably; normal appetite?

Mucous membrane should be pink and moist (unless they’re pigmented). If you ever see pale gums like white gums that’s really serious and that’s an emergency.

Normal capitallary refill time (CRT): 1 -2 seconds. When you push your finger on the mucus membrane it turns white. How long it takes the blood to come back into those blood vessels?

Feel the pulse (femoral vs dorsal pedal). There are a few places to feel a pulse but I think these two are the easiest.

  • Femoral pulse can be found by taking your index finger and your middle finger and feeling along the inside of the thigh, along where the inseam of your jeans would be.
  • Dorsal pedal pulse can be felt just below the back ankle on the top of the foot, kind of where the shoelaces would be.

Heart rate or a pulse rate. Count how many beats you feel in one minute. If you can’t find the pulse, sometimes you can actually feel the heart beating if you feel along the chest wall. A lot of times it’s easier to feel on the left hand side just behind the elbow.

Normal breathing is calm, quiet and relaxed. Watch their breathing and their chest to just rise and fall softly and gently, with no effort.

Count the respiratory rate. At rest: less than 30 breaths per minute. Count how many times the chest rises and falls in one minute.

Temperature. A rectal temperature is most accurate but takes practice. Your first time, ask for help from someone experience (like your vet or vet tech). Have a thermometer probe that you dip in lubricant. Gently lift the tail. Don’t pull on the tail. Dogs hate it when you pull on their tail. Don’t stick it in there until you actually see it.

Gently feel (palpate) the abdomen. It should be soft and non-painful. You can kind of gently gently push on it and make sure you don’t feel anything uncomfortable or too hard. That should always be nice and soft. If you notice it getting too large or being painful that could be a sign of a problem.

Check the ears. They should be pretty clean and not red or uncomfortable.

Check the eyes. The whites should be white with not red and not hazy, painful, swollen or anything like that.

Regularly check all of the places where the peripheral lymph nodes are.

  • Submandibular lymph nodes: underneath their jaw, there’re two little balls that you can feel and those are the salivary glands. They should be small, firm, lentil-like structures under the jaw adjacent to the larger/slightly squishier salivary glands.
  • Prescapular lymph node: right next to the submandibular lymph nodes. On either side can be found on the front of the chest in a groove (in front of the shoulders)
  • Axillary lymph node: in the armpit
  • Popliteal lymph node: behind the knee
  • Inguinal lymph node: in the groin

Assess body condition and muscle mass. When you’re looking at them you should make sure that they’re not too thin and that their bones aren’t sticking out too much and they’re well muscled.

Assess the hair coat, and feel the skin beneath the fur. You want to look at their coat to make sure that it’s nice and healthy and always feel around and make sure you don’t feel any lumps or anything abnormal.

Quiz

Practice feeling a pulse on your pet. What number per minute did you get?
Observe your pet's breathing at home. What is their respiratory rate per minute?

Here are the 3 best pieces of advice from the emergency vet that could save your pet’s life:

1) DON’T WAIT TOO LONG TO GET HELP! If you wait too long, it could be too late. This is especially true for concerns such as laboured breathing, pale gums and weakness. You know your pet best, so if you are worried or concerned, “when in doubt, check it out!”

2) PREVENT THE PREVENTABLE. Learn as much as possible about dangers that face your pet, such as household poisons, seemingly harmless objects (such as toys, clothing, garbage and rocks), other animals, and vehicles. Pets are like toddlers and they need a responsible adult/babysitter to protect them from danger. Puppies and kittens need to start their vaccines at 8 WEEKS (and they need boosters too!) to protect them from deadly diseases.

3) BE PREPARED FOR THE WORST CASE SCENARIO. Have a plan in place, know your nearest emergency clinic, have the ASPCA phone number on speed dial. Know basic first aid training and CPR. But MOST IMPORTANTLY, BE FINANCIALLY PREPARED. The cost of medical treatment in an emergency, and the owners’ ability to pay for it, is probably the most important factor that determines whether a pet will receive the medical care it needs. The best way to protect yourself is to have good medical insurance for your pet. Do your research.

**REMEMBER**: WE ARE ALL ON THE SAME TEAM, with the best interest of the patient as everyone’s first priority. Let your vet do what he/she does best, and don’t try to grab the steering wheel and obstruct your vet from doing his/her job. We are all in the same car, we are all headed to the same place, but only one of us has the driver’s license (meaning, only the vet has the medical training and background to “drive the car”).

Please remember to spay/ neuter your pet, and to donate to your local animal shelter- they really need your help!

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