DIY Dog Physical Exam: Learn How to Examine Your Dog

An “owner’s manual” for your dog. (Part 1 of 4)
By Shea Cox DVM, August 2012, Updated July 2020
Dog Physical Exam, Get Normal Dog Temperature and Heart Rate

To identify an illness or abnormal situation with your dog, 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.

I will provide you with information on how to perform an at-home physical exam on your dog, 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.

Start with the basics for your dog physical exam: A good look at your dog's posture, find the normal temperature for your dog, and how to obtain a heart rate for your dog. Next we will continue with a systems approach beginning with the head area, followed by the chest, and lastly, the abdomen. At the completion of this series of articles, you should have a complete home guide on how to perform a screening exam on your dog. Ready?!

Get Started with The Basics

First, before you start your hands-on dog physical 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.

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CHECKING A DOG’S TEMPERATURE:

Taking your dog’s temperature is an easy, important procedure, and learning how to take a dog's temperature should be something all pet owners know how to do. Use a digital rectal thermometer (the ear type is less reliable and mercury thermometers can break!). Lubricate the end of the thermometer with petroleum jelly and gently insert the thermometer into your dog’s 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 dog temperature is between 100 F and 102.5F.
  • When checking for a dog’s temperature, the thermometer should be almost clean when removed.

Abnormal

  • A temperature below 99 F or above 102.5 F is abnormal for a dog.
  • Evidence of blood, diarrhea, or black, tarry stool on the thermometer is abnormal for a dog; black/tarry stool can indicate a bleeding ulcer in the stomach or small intestines, or point to other sources of disease

FINDING A DOG’S PULSE AND HEART RATE:

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

How to Check a Dog's Pulse on their Femoral Artery Near Leg

Here’s how to locate the femoral artery dog and read a pulse. 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 dog’s 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 of your dog 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 dog 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

  • For dogs a heart rate of 60 to 160 beats per minute (bpm) is normal. 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 individual dog.
  • The pulse should be easily felt and the quality of it should be strong and regular

Abnormal

  • Too rapid or too slow for your individual dog.
  • Pulse is weak, irregular, or hard to locate

​That's it! Now you've assessed your dog’s general health, learned how to check a dog’s temperature, what a normal dog temperature is and how to check your dog's heart rate. It is important to practice these essential skills​. ​Gear up for the next part of our series and get a complete basis of your dog’s health with the next part of our series.

DIY Physical Dog Exam

A complete home guide on how to perform a simple screening exam on your dog.

Part 1: Check Dog Temperature and Heart rate
Part 2: Exam Your Dog’s Head
Part 3: Exam Your Dog’s Neck, Chest and Breathing
Part 4: Exam Your Dog’s Stomach Area

Consult your veterinarian if you’re concerned about any of these dog physical exam findings; early recognition can save your dog’s life.

Photo by Erda Estremera

Shea Cox earned a veterinary medical degree from Michigan State University in 2001 and has been practicing emergency and critical care medicine since. In 2006, she joined PETS Referral Center. In her spare time, she loves to paint, wield her green thumb and cook up a storm. She shares her days with the three loves of her life: her husband Scott and their two Doberman.