Evaluating Your Pet’s Health

When your pet isn’t acting right and you aren’t sure what to do, knowing how to assess three vital signs can help your veterinarian determine the status of your pet when you call the veterinary hospital for help. The New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association offers the following advice.

Temperature, pulse and gum color provide useful information about your pet’s health. However, don’t wait for an illness to first attempt these maneuvers. Your under-the-weather animal may react by launching claws or teeth into your probing fingers. It’s best to practice these procedures on a relaxed healthy kitten or puppy. This will also train you as to what the normal results should be.

A pet’s body temperature is assessed by gently inserting a rectal thermometer, lubricated with Vaseline or K-Y Jelly, 1-2 inches into the anus beneath your pet’s tail. If you do not feel comfortable doing this, ear thermometers are available for animals. Normal readings are 101-102 degrees Fahrenheit. A high temperature may mean your pet has an infection. However, heavy exercise, excitement or laying in the sun on a hot day can cause false elevations. Subnormal readings can indicate weakness and lethargy, but don’t be fooled by cold weather and after-nap chills.

Measuring your pet’s pulse is done by softly pressing your fingertips against the upper inner thigh of your pet. This is not as embarrassing a position as it may seem but it takes practice to assess this measure of heart rate and blood pressure. You can also place your hand against the chest behind the left front leg. The normal resting dog or cat heart beats between 80 and 150 times per minute. Rapid heartbeats can indicate pain, heart disease or shock, especially if the pulse is weak. If your pet faints or has seizures, slow beats can also point to disease. As with temperature, levels are lower with rest and higher with exercise and excitement.

Gum Color
Gum color is evaluated by lifting your pet’s lip and looking at the tongue and the gum above the upper teeth. It should be pink to red. The gum should blanch to white and then return to pink when pushed, released, and observed. Poor blood circulation is indicated by taking more than two seconds to return to pink. Pale or white gums can mean anemia or shock. Yellow gums are a sign of liver disease or anemia caused by red blood cell destruction. Very red painful gums point to gingivitis. This test is easy to perform unless your pet has naturally black gums or dislikes having its mouth manipulated.

If your pet is acting listless, these measurements can help your veterinarian determine the severity of your pet’s illness. However, the best indicator of your pet’s health is achieved by a thorough professional examination.

If you need a veterinarian, please visit the Find a Veterinarian page for a list of NJVMA veterinarians in your area.