To identify a problem or an abnormal situation, you must first be able to recognize what’s normal for your dog. Performing this exam in the comfort of your home when your dog’s in good shape is the best way to do this. Consult your veterinarian if you’re concerned about any exam finding; early recognition can save your dog’s life.
Before you start the exam, take a good look at your dog when she’s just hanging out; observe her posture and general demeanor. Getting a good picture of your dog’s “normal” in a relaxed environment will help you pick up any subtle changes that may occur.
1. Take her temperature. Using a digital rectal thermometer (the ear type is less reliable, and mercury thermometers can break), lubricate the end with petroleum jelly and gently insert it 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. A normal temperature is between 100º and 102.5º F.
2. Check her heart rate by taking her pulse at the femoral artery, which you’ll find on the inside of her thigh; feel for the roll of the artery and a pulsing sensation. Count the number of pulses in 15 seconds and multiply by four. A dog’s pulse rate is highly variable, but generally, normal is 80 to 120 beats per minute. Relaxed, large-breed or athletic dogs tend to have slower rates, while the rate for puppies and small dogs tends to be higher.
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3. Start at her head. Nose: smooth, soft and clean, like supple leather (noses aren’t necessarily always cool or moist). Eyes: bright, moist and clear, with pupils equal in size; the whites should be white, with only a few visible blood vessels. Ears: clean and dry, almost odor-free; you should be able to gently massage them without complaint. Mouth: teeth clean and white, gums uniformly pink and moist to the touch.
4. Watch her chest as she breathes. The chest wall should move in and out easily and rhythmically in an effortless way; each breath should look the same as the last. (Unless she’s panting, you should not be able to hear your dog breathe.) A normal resting respiration rate is 15 to 30 breaths per minute; a sleeping or relaxed dog would be near the low end, while an active and engaged dog would be higher. As with heart rates, smaller dogs tend to have a faster resting breathing rate than larger dogs.
5. Examine her skin. One of the body’s major organs and an important indicator of overall health, the skin of a healthy dog is soft and unbroken, with minimal odor and—except for wirehaired breeds—the hair coat is shiny and smooth.
6. Check her hydration with the skin turgor test. Pull the skin over her neck or back into a “tent” and release; it should return quickly to its original position. If it returns slowly, or remains slightly tented, your dog may be dehydrated.
7. Finish up with the torso. Starting just behind the ribs, gently press your hands into your dog’s belly; if she’s just eaten, you may feel an enlargement in the left part of the belly just under the ribs (where the stomach lives), which can be normal. Proceed toward the rear of her body, passing your hands gently over the entire area. Lumps, bumps or masses; signs of discomfort; or distention of the belly warrant further investigation by your vet.