What is your pet’s normal resting pulse rate?
For most people, the answer is going to be a bemused scratching of the head. “What a wacky thing to ask. Why do I need to know my pet’s pulse rate?”
Put simply, the reason is so you can spot when something changes and catch a medical problem early.
Let’s Start at the Beginning
One of my elderly cats, Pilchard, is being treated for kidney disease at the clinic right now. But when a colleague asked me what Pilchard usually weighed, I realized — to my shame — that I, a veterinarian, didn’t know.
Now, in itself, not knowing her weight is forgivable, but it made me realize that if poor Pilchard belonged to one of my clients, her weight would be on file. As it is, she hates the carrier and the car journey even more, so I save her the stress. I have the luxury of being able to give her medical care at home, so this is what happens. But I don’t have cat-weighing scales at home — hence not knowing her weight.
So why the angst? The truth is, weight, and especially weight loss, is a great early warning sign that something isn’t right. If I’d picked up that Pilchard’s weight had changed sooner, perhaps she would be healthier now.
Visit the Vet
Have you ever agonized over whether or not to take your pet to the veterinarian? Wouldn’t it be great if there was something to help you decide?
If your cat’s appetite is poor, your dog lacks of energy or you know they’d lost weight, then a vet trip is clearly a good idea.
See what I’m driving at? If you know what’s normal, change becomes a red warning sign not to be ignored.
In an ideal world, everyone would jot down their pet’s weight, heart rate and respiratory rate once a month in a notebook. This may sound obsessive, but it’s a great tool if you have a breed prone to problems. For example, your Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is prone to heart disease, so you are keen to catch any potential problems early. By regularly checking your dog’s heart and respiratory rate, you are empowered to spot change early.
Check Breathing and Heart Rate
You know how when you run for the bus, you end up hopelessly out of breath? Well, that’s your heart and lungs working hard and pushing up your pulse and respiratory rate.
How high it goes depends on how hard you worked, which is why we like to take these measurements at rest. Taking resting measurements, when the pet is asleep, cuts out variables and makes the results more reliable.
In most cases, if pets have heart or lung disease, their heart and/or respiratory rate increase to compensate. The upward trend is something to take note of.
If the pet seems otherwise fit and well, repeat the readings to be sure they are consistently raised. If they are, then consult the vet.
Check Your Pet’s Respiratory Rate
To do this, you don’t need to touch and disturb the pet — just stand back and watch her breathing, noticing the rise and fall of her chest. Then pick one spot on the chest, such as a distinctive group of hairs, and count how many times it rises in 60 seconds (alternatively, count for 15 seconds and multiply that figure by 4.) This is your respiratory rate.
Now for the heart rate. With the pet asleep, touch your fingertips to the chest wall just behind the pet’s elbow. Feel for the bump-bump of the heartbeat. Count these over 60 seconds (or for 15 seconds and multiply by 4). This is the pet’s heart rate.
Write both figures down for future reference (along with their weight, if you have suitable scales at home).
Here are some more helpful tips on checking vitals:
Another great advantage of taking these readings is that you learn to really observe your pet. You get familiar with the chest movements, and if that motion becomes labored, you can spot it right away. Consider videoing your pet at rest (when she is well) against a white sheet (so she shows up clearly) and keep that film for future reference.
So there you have it: an easy way to monitor your pet’s health by familiarizing yourself with what’s normal for her. And once Pilchard is back home, I promise to start weighing her regularly.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed April 1, 2016.