Dog at Rest
I always tell folks to watch and listen to their pets every day. You learn to see patterns in their behavior: how much they eat and drink; how much they sleep and when and where; how they breathe, at rest and after exertion.

All of those things are clues to your animal’s health. The best way to recognize when something is abnormal is to be familiar with what’s normal. If you’ve got a hot dog or a heavy breather, here are some guidelines to help you determine if your pet is healthy or having problems.


Breathing is something we almost don’t notice, in ourselves or our dogs. The body regulates breathing automatically, sending signals from the base of the brain down the spine to the muscles that control breathing, telling them to contract and relax on a regular basis. Breathing changes based on factors such as activity level, temperature, the presence of irritants or toxins in the air and emotions such as fear or anxiety.

Dogs at rest have a normal respiration rate of 10 to 35 breaths per minute. The average dog at rest takes 24 breaths per minute. To check your dog’s respiration rate, count his chest movements for 15 seconds and multiply by four to get the total number of breaths per minute. Practice at home, when you and your dog are both relaxed, so you’ll recognize quickly when something is wrong.

When a dog’s respiratory rate is persistently high and can’t be attributed to any of the above environmental factors, it can signal a health problem such as anemia, congestive heart failure or various respiratory disorders.

Shallow or slow breathing is also a concern. A dog whose respiratory rate has decreased markedly may be in shock. He could be in danger of not breathing altogether. This can be a result of a number of factors, including trauma (such as being hit by a car), poisoning or certain neuromuscular diseases.

Other signs of respiratory problems to be aware of are noisy breathing; difficulty breathing in or out; deep, forceful breathing; or coughing, especially a dry cough or one that brings up mucus or blood. Needless to say, any change in your dog’s breathing may well be an emergency and warrants a trip to the veterinarian — stat!


The body functions normally at a given temperature range; this is true for humans and for dogs. A dog’s body is set to a normal temperature of 100 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The average canine body temperature is 101.3. Puppies can vary a little outside these ranges. For instance, newborn pups have a body temperature of 94 to 97 degrees and may not reach normal body temperature until they are about a month old.

Dogs have an insulating layer of hair or fur to keep them warm when it’s cold, but staying cool is more difficult for them. Unlike people, they don’t have an evaporative cooling system of sweat glands but must release heat by panting. That’s not very effective, so it’s important to always provide your dog with cool water and shade when he's outdoors and to limit activity in the heat of the day. That goes double for short-faced (brachycephalic) dogs such as Bulldogs or Pugs, who can quickly die of heatstroke if they aren’t kept in cool surroundings.

To take your dog’s temperature, lubricate a bulb or digital rectal thermometer with K-Y or petroleum jelly and gently insert it one to three inches into the anal canal. Trust me, even with a tiny dog, you’ll want an assistant to hold the dog firmly during this process. Hold the thermometer in place — and whatever you do, don’t let the dog sit down on it — for three minutes. Then remove it, wipe it down and read the temperature. After every use, clean the thermometer with alcohol.

How do you know if your dog’s body temperature is out of whack? If his temperature is below normal, you might notice that he has chills or is shivering or that he’s trying to keep warm by curling up or lying in a warm spot. Fevers, on the other hand, are often the body’s response to infection, but they can also be caused by anything from inflammation and allergic reactions to toxins or cancer.

Dogs with heatstroke — a life-threatening rise in body temperature — pant heavily, have difficulty breathing and may have a bright red tongue and gums. Thick drool and vomiting are other signs. Heatstroke is an emergency! Get the dog out of the heat, bathe his paws with lukewarm water and get him to the veterinarian.

Pulse Rate

How fast your dog’s heart beats depends on his age and size. Young puppies have the most rapid heartbeats: 160 to 200 beats per minute at birth and up to 220 bpm when they are 2 weeks old. An adult dog’s heart beats 60 to 140 times per minute. Usually, the larger the dog, the slower the heart rate. A toy dog’s heart rate can be as high as 180 bpm.

To check your dog’s heart rate, put your hand on the inside of the rear leg at mid-thigh. You should feel the femoral artery pulsing near the surface. It’s easiest to find if your dog is standing. Count the number of beats you feel during a 15-second period and multiply by four to get the beats per minute.

A pulse that is unusually fast or slow can be cause for concern. A fast pulse rate might be something as simple as anxiety, but it can also indicate many other conditions, including blood loss, dehydration, fever and heatstroke. A slow pulse rate may be a sign of shock or heart disease.

Next time you’re at the clinic, ask your veterinarian what’s normal in your dog and have her show you how to check for it. Knowing what to look for can save you some anxiety and get you to the vet on time when you do face an emergency.

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