What is the MOST Important Thing You can do for Your Pet’s Health?

Can you guess?

Of course, it’s incredibly important to feed a great quality diet and ensure our furry friends get plenty of exercise, mental stimulation, and love.  For me though, the number one  is even more simple.

You just have to pay attention.

You need to recognise what is normal for your pet.

I mean, how can we possibly tell if something is wrong if we aren’t aware of what our dog or cat looks like, acts like and feels like when everything is okay? Sure, if they are limping or bleeding profusely there is obviously a problem.  But what about those times they just don’t seem quite right?  If something changes from their own unique ‘normal’, you should be hearing alarm bells.

If you’re on top of what’s normal, you’ll be quick to notice changes in your little buddy such as:

  • Mood – less active? More grumpy? Confused?
  • Energy levels – suddenly not wanting to play? Getting more and more hyperactive?
  • Movement – stiffer when rising in the morning? Sore after exercise?
  • Body weight – weight gain? Weight loss?
  • Appetite – less interested in food? Suddenly ravenous all the time?
  • Thirst – are you filling the water bowl more often than you used to?
  • Skin – a new lump? An itchy, inflamed area?
  • Urination/defecation – Changes in habits? Frequency? appearance?
  • Breathing  – Noisy? Shallow? Faster?

Now, I’m not telling you to play vet.  The beauty of learning about normal behaviour and vital signs for your own pet is that it can potentially help you to notice that something isn’t right much earlier than you otherwise would have.  So many pets we see through the vet clinic are already very, very sick.  Some have chronic illnesses that have been slowly and steadily getting worse for weeks if not months.  And it’s not because their owners didn’t care:

They just didn’t realise…

There’s an old saying that a stitch in time saves nine (thanks grandma!).  In other words, solving a small problem early can prevent it from becoming something much worse.  And in fact that’s what annual health checks are all about.  Detecting little things before they grow into big, scary things.

So Start Watching Your Pet – Now

It goes without saying that ‘normal’ varies from animal to animal.

Practice observing normal, healthy pets.  Particularly with your own pets, familiarize yourself with their day to day habits and behavior.  Pay close attention to the way they walk and run, and get a feel for their normal body language.

Is your dog so greedy that the food seems to vanish before the bowl has even reached the floor?

Does your cat prefer to graze throughout the day, sometimes leaving food ignored for hours?

Do you hear a paw tapping at the front door or feel a nudge from a wet nose if you’re a few minutes late for the daily run in the park, or do they enjoy nothing more than snoozing the day away in a nice warm patch of sunshine?

Being aware of these things will help you to quickly notice if something is amiss.

All of the above are really useful and important, but wouldn’t it be great if there were some measurable, objective parameters you could quickly check to help you work out if you need to get to a vet asap? Well guess what, there are!

Vital Signs – Why are they Important?

Just like us, our pets need oxygen delivery to the cells of the body and removal of byproducts of cellular metabolism in order to survive.  This requires breathing to bring oxygen into the lungs and a beating heart to pump the oxygen picked up by the red blood cells throughout the body.

An animal’s heart rate, respiratory rate, and the colour of their gums can all help in assessing of the status of these vital functions.

Maintenance of an appropriate core body temperature is also essential for life.  Being too hot (hyperthermia) or too cold (hypothermia) can come with their own causes and possible consequences.

The great news is, it only takes a couple of minutes to check your pet’s vitals, and it’s really very easy.  The more you do it, the easier it becomes, and the more familiar you become with your own pet’s ‘normal’.

How to Assess Vital Signs

We are interested in heart rate, respiratory rate, gum colour, and sometimes temperature (I wouldn’t suggest doing this last one frequently!).

Changes, or trends, are usually more informative than absolute values, so it’s worth checking in every now and again.  Abnormal values could mean something as simple as excitement or stress, or could be indicating a serious problem.  Any change from normal is worth getting checked by your vet, especially if there is no obvious cause.


Place your hand over the left side of the dog or cat’s chest, over the ribs and behind the elbows.  When you can feel the heartbeat, count how many beats occur in 15 seconds and multiply by 4.  This gives you the number of beats per minute, or the heart rate (A). As you can see below my silly Billy just thinks any attention is awesome and is lapping it up.

To assess the pulse, place two fingers over the femoral artery on the inside of the thigh (B).  Measure as for heart rate.  Billy is still smiling!

The heart rate and pulse should be the same, and the pulse should not feel excessively weak or strong.


Watch the chest rise and fall.  Count the number of breaths in 15 seconds then multiply by 4 for the number of breaths per minute, or respiratory rate.


The best place to look on most dogs and cat is the gums.  Gently lift the upper lip to assess the colour.  Press one finger against the gum, release, then measure how long it takes to return to the original colour after blanching.  This is called the capillary refill time (C).

Never put your hands inside the mouth of an injured, distressed or aggressive animal unless you want to lose them.


The temperature measurement of dogs and cats is most accurate when taken rectally.  So this one is an optional extra, because let’s face it, not everyone is comfortable sticking something up their pet’s bottom.  Apply lubricant to a digital thermometer and gently insert it into the anus.  Press the button.  When it beeps to signal it has finished reading, removed it and read the temperature.

Practice checking these parameters on your own pet when they are healthy, calm and relaxed.  Establish what is ‘normal’ for them.  Record your results in a table like the one below.

This post has been adapted from my brand new book, First Aid for Pets.  Currently available to all of my Aussie friends, please stop by the Creature Clinic shop for more information.  Not only is it a great thing to have at home, it makes an excellent gift for pet-loving friends and family too.

So what do you think? Will you be watching your pet a little closer from now on?

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