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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?!
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.
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.
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.
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 .