DIY Dog Physical Exam: Dog Respiratory Rate

An “owner’s manual” for your dog. (Part 3 of 4)
By Shea Cox DVM, September 2012, Updated July 2020
dog breathing fast vs normal dog respiratory rate

This is part three in our four-part DIY physical dog exam! We are going to move down to the chest area, known as the thorax and review what is normal for most dogs.

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.

Examining The Thorax

With this lesson we’ll examine your dog’s thorax: check the dog's neck, assess their chest, learn how to check a dog’s respiratory rate and learn how to perform a skin turgor test. In the next part of our series, we will continue with the 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?!

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CHECKING YOUR DOG’S RESPIRATORY RATE:

When your dog is sleeping, or resting quietly you can assess their respiratory rate. First, watch your dog's chest as it rises and falls to familiarize yourself with the movement. One breath is counted ​when the dog has inhaled and exhaled once. Next, set a timer for 30 seconds. Count the number of times the dog takes a breath (when the chest rises and falls.) Once you have your initial results, multiply the number of breaths by 2 to get the dog's respiratory rate (bpm). A normal dog respitory rate is between 15-60 bpm.

ASSESS YOUR DOG’S BREATHING:

Normal Breathing in Dogs

  • You should not be able to hear your pet breathe at all (except with panting).
  • The act of breathing is for the most part performed by the chest wall; it should move “in and out” easily and rhythmically to and fro during respiration in an effortless way; each breath should look the same as the last.
  • The normal resting respiration rate for dogs is 15 to 30 breaths per minute (a sleeping or relaxed dog.) If your dog is being active, expect a higher respiratory rate between 15-60 breaths; and just like with heart rates, smaller dogs will tend to have a faster resting respiratory rate than larger dogs.

Abnormal Breathing Signs in Dogs

  • Any unusual noise heard while the dog is breathing could indicate a problem, especially if the noise is new for your pet.
  • A big concern: a change in your dog’s bark can indicate disease processes such as laryngeal paralysis (a common condition in our older large breed dogs such as Labs) or the development of a tumor in the airway.
  • Wheezing during expiration can indicate conditions such as asthma or allergic airway disease.
  • High pitched noises on inspiration indicate an obstruction of the upper airway and immediate medical attention is needed (see our previous blog).
  • Sudden or frequent sneezing can indicate foreign objects in the nasal passages, such as foxtails.
  • If there is noticeable effort by your dog to move the chest wall, or if the belly is actively involved in the process of inhaling and exhaling: these are signs of respiratory distress and can be caused by many conditions.
  • The onset of coughing in an older dog: coughing is one of the more common signs of the development of heart failure or lung cancer in dogs; x-rays of the chest will be needed to further evaluate if you notice this symptom.
  • Your dog stands with elbows held out further than normal, its neck extended out further than normal or, is unable to rest or lie down: these are all outward signs that your dog is having difficulty breathing and getting enough oxygen into its body.
  • An increased resting respiratory rate can be a sign that a previously diagnosed disease is progressing; for example: if your dog with heart disease has a normal resting rate of 15 breaths a minute, and then the resting rate goes up to 30 while asleep, then doubled rate means it’s time to see the veterinarian.

INSPECTING A DOG’S SKIN:

The skin is one of the body’s major organs and it is an important indicator of overall health. The first things to do are to simply look at, smell, and feel your dog’s skin and haircoat.

Normal

  • Shiny and smooth haircoat (except for wirehaired breeds)
  • Soft and unbroken skin
  • Minimal odor

Abnormal

  • Sparse or patchy haircoat: this can indicate underlying endocrine diseases such as Cushing’s disease.
  • Lumps and bumps, which can be normal or abnormal: many older dogs can develop accumulations of fatty tissue known as lipomas; in order to differentiate these benign masses from cancerous ones, an aspirate can be performed (collection of cells with a small needle); this simple and quick procedure can help your veterinarian determine the nature of the lump and help you decide if further tests or treatment are needed.
  • Open sores or wounds, or any ulcerated area of skin.
  • Foul or rancid odor: this can indicate a bacterial or yeast infection in the skin.

PERFORM SKIN TURGOR TEST:

The skin turgor test is one of the most helpful ways to determine whether your pet is well hydrated; although this test can be affected by several factors other than hydration status, such as weight loss, age and general skin condition, it can help you to make a rough determination of the hydration status. To perform this test, pull up the skin over the neck or back into “a tent” and release it quickly: it should return quickly to its resting position. If the skin returns slowly to position, or if remains slightly tented, then this is a good indication that your pet is dehydrated.

That sums up the thorax region of our dog, including one of the other major organs—the skin.  Keep practicing your physical exam skills—it’s definitely a win/win for your dog! Not only does your pet get a good “once over” from you, he or she gets even more hands-on attention in the process. Be sure to read the last part of the series which will include the abdomen and musculoskeletal system of a dog.

DIY Physical Dog Exam

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

Part 1: Check 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.

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.