Know your pet’s behaviors to make call on emergency
Medical emergencies in our pets can be terrifying and costly. Identifying true emergencies is important to help you make the best decision for your pet.
Knowing what is normal and paying attention to your pets when they are healthy can help you make an informed decision when and if an emergency arises.
Veterinarians rely on an owner’s perceptions of what is normal for their pet in helping to identify subtle changes that may be an abnormal situation affecting their pet’s health. Obviously, early recognition of a problem can make the difference between life and death.
Conducting a physical exam on your pet is simple and can give you a better feel for what is normal. Then when abnormalities arise, you are better equipped to offer helpful information to guide your pet’s care.
The first thing I recommend is that you have a basic log book to record some facts about each pet. Keep this simple, and record resting vital signs for each pet.
A basic physical exam be done in less than five minutes and, when done repeatedly, becomes second nature. You will find that you are much attuned to subtle changes in your pet’s behavior, health, attitude and condition. Always approach the physical exam the same way, and be consistent so you are less likely to overlook something.
Temperature, pulse and respirations (TPR) can be the most important indicators of your pet’s health.
If you read no further in this article, at least remember this: Record your pet’s temperature, pulse and respirations at rest several times to learn what is normal.
Learn to locate the pulse on your pet before a crisis. The best place on a cat or dog is the femoral artery in the groin area. Place your fingers around the front of the hind leg and move upward until the back of your hand meets the abdominal wall. Move your fingertips back and forth on the inside of the thigh until you feel the pulsing sensation as the blood rushes through the artery. Resting heart rates for cats are between 100–160 beats per minute (bpm) and 60–160 bpm for dogs.
Do not use the heart rate at the sole evidence that your pet is sick or healthy.
Respirations should be quiet (except when panting), consistent and should involve primarily the chest wall. Loud, raspy or unusual breath sounds or breathing that involves the abdominal muscles may reflect a problem.
Record your pet’s respiratory rate (breaths per minute) at rest over several days to get an idea of what is normal. Normal respiratory rates are 15 breaths per minute in large dogs to 60 breaths in small dogs and cats.
Taking a temperature may not be for every pet owner, but it can be done easily at home using a digital thermometer that you set aside for use in only your pet. A rectal temperature is the most accurate way to assess a pet’s body temperature. Lubricate a thermometer and insert it slowly and gently 1–2 inches into the rectum. Leave it in place for two minutes or until it alarms. Never force the thermometer and don’t risk being bitten trying to get a temperature. A normal rectal temperature for a cat or dog is between 101–102.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Your pet’s nose should be moist and clean. Although a dry nose is often taken as a sign of illness it can be very normal. Again, get used to what your pet’s nose looks and feels like when healthy. Dry, cracked noses with discharge or blood obviously can be a sign of a problem.
Next, look at the skin. Is the coat soft, dry, brittle, flaking? Are there lumps, growths, odors or sores?
Animals reflect many illnesses in their coat and this becomes an important indicator of overall health. All growths should be examined by a veterinarian to determine if they are harmless fatty accumulations or more serious cancerous masses.
A rough estimate of hydration can be assessed with a skin turgor test. To perform this test, pull the skin over the chest or back into a tent and release it quickly. Avoid the skin of the neck as it’s often too thick for this test.
Observe the skin as it returns to its resting position. Normal skin should snap back into position while dehydrated skin will remain tented. This test can be affected by several factors other than hydration status, such as weight loss, age and general skin condition, but it can help you make a rough determination of your pet’s hydration status.
Eyes are the windows to the soul, and in pets the eyes can reflect evidence of an assortment of diseases including viral, neurological, endocrine and autoimmune disorders. The eyes should be bright, moist and clear with white sclera (the whites of the eyes). Dull, sunken eyes with redness, yellowing or discharge may reflect serious health problems.
Ear problems are common in pets and be a result of dietary or environmental allergies, moisture, anatomical conditions leading to narrowed ear canals, foreign bodies or growths in the ears. A normal ear is smooth and clean with no noticeable odor. Wounds, scabs, crust, odors or pain indicate potential problems.
The mouth is probably the most overlooked and ignored area when it comes to a pet’s health. Yet it is one of the most painful, infectious and potentially diseased areas that can lead to more systemic illness.
Teeth should be clean and white with pink gums. Tarter accumulation at the gum line with red, swollen or bleeding gums is a sign of dental disease. Often the odor from a pet’s mouth is the most obvious indication of dental infection.
A quick assessment of your pet’s circulatory system is to press on the gums and measure the capillary refill time. This is the equivalent of pressing on your fingernail to blanch the color and then seeing how long it takes for color to return. Normal is 1–2 seconds. A delayed capillary refill time may indicate cardiac disease or other potentially serious conditions.
Press your hands gently into your pet’s abdomen just behind the ribs and work back toward the rear of the body. Check for tenderness, swelling, firm masses or distention. There should be no groaning and the abdomen should be soft. Abdominal pain can indicate a serious problem requiring an examination by your veterinarian.
Watch your pet closely so you can recognize when something is wrong. Become familiar with these normals before a crisis.