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DIY Physical Exam: An “owner’s manual” for your dog Part 1
Part 1 in a 4 Part Guide

To identify an illness or abnormal situation, you must first be able to recognize what is normal for your dog. You know your dog better than anyone else and you will have to decide when an abnormal situation warrants professional help. Sometimes the condition is so serious it leaves no doubt. Frequently, however, the changes are subtle, or happen over a longer period of time, making noticing a problem more difficult.  

Over the course of the following weeks, I will provide you with information on how to perform an at-home physical exam, helping to determine and establish what is normal for your pet. It is recommended that you occasionally perform this exam- while there is nothing wrong- so that you can begin to get used to what is normal. This practice will help allow for the early detection of changes in your dog’s health.  

I will start with the basics this week: A good look, temperature, and how to obtain a heart rate. Next week will continue with a systems approach beginning with the head area, followed by the chest, and lastly, the abdomen. At the completion of these 4 blogs, you should have a complete home guide on how to perform a screening exam.  Ready?!

THE BASICS:

First, before you start your hands-on exam, stand back and just simply look at your dog for a few minutes. The posture, breathing, activity level, and general appearance can really tell you a great deal. Get a good picture of your dog’s “normal” in its relaxed home environment—this mental snapshot will help you notice any subtle change.

TEMPERATURE:

Taking your dog’s temperature is an easy and important procedure. Use a digital rectal thermometer (the ear type is less reliable and mercury thermometers can break!). Lubricate the end with petroleum jelly and gently insert the thermometer into the rectum about 1 inch for small dogs and about 2 inches for larger ones. If it does not slide in easily, do not force it. And do not risk taking your pet’s temperature if you feel there is a risk of being bitten.

Normal

  • A normal temperature is between 100 F and 102.5F
  • The thermometer is almost clean when removed

Abnormal

  • Temperature is below 99 F or above 102.5 F
  • There is evidence of blood, diarrhea, or black, tarry stool on the thermometer; black/tarry stool can indicate a bleeding ulcer in the stomach or small intestines, or point to other sources of disease

PULSE AND HEART RATE:

Learn to locate the pulse on your dog before a crisis. The best place on a dog is the femoral artery in the groin area (see picture).

Here’s how: 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 “roll” of the artery and the pulsing sensation as the blood rushes through it. Count the number of pulses in 15 seconds and multiply by 4. This will give you the pulse rate in beats per minute. Pulse rate is a highly variable finding and can be affected by recent exercise, excitement or stress. Do not use the heart rate at the sole evidence that your pet is sick or healthy.

The heart rates that are listed are for healthy dogs at rest in their home, not for animals that are evaluated in a veterinary clinic where higher heart rates might be detected due to excitement, stress of a visit to the clinic, or disease.

Normal

  • Dogs: 60 to 160 beats per minute (bpm): relaxed, large breed, or athletic dogs tend to have slower heart rates, while small breed dogs and puppies tend to have higher heart rates. This marked variability in heart rate stresses the importance of knowing what is normal for your pet.
  • The pulse should be easily felt and the quality of it should be strong and regular

 

Abnormal

  • Too rapid or too slow
  • Pulse is weak, irregular, or hard to locate

 

Practice these essential skills and I’ll see you next week for all things head related, including the ears, eyes, nose, and mouth! See DIY Physical Exam: Part 2.

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Veterinarian Shea Cox has enjoyed an indirect path through her professional life, initially obtaining degrees in fine arts and nursing. She later obtained her veterinary medical degree from Michigan State University in 2001 and has been practicing emergency and critical care medicine solely since that time. In 2006, she joined the ER staff at PETS Referral Center in Berkeley and cannot imagine a more rewarding and fulfilling place to spend her working hours. In her spare time, she loves to paint, wield her green thumb, cook up a storm and sail. Her days are shared with the three loves of her life: her husband Scott and their two Doberman children that curiously occupy opposite ends of the personality spectrum.

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Submitted by Anonymous | September 1 2012 |

Always love getting info to help me protect my pups.

Submitted by Anonymous | September 5 2012 |

Oh geez, don't think the dog would like the temperature reading practicing! But I will try checking her pulse.

Submitted by Anonymous | September 5 2012 |

seriously useful information, thanks for sharing it

Submitted by Miss Jan | September 8 2012 |

Thank you for providing this straightforward information. I am saving the info on a quick-reference card posted on my fridge door (right next to some animal poison hotline numbers) so that if someone else is caring for my Jack Russell while I'm away on business they can quickly check if concerned about any problem and know just what to relay to me and to a veterinarian.

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