How to Tell if Your Pet is Sick (and What You Can Do About It)

As a proud pet owner, nothing is more important than the health of your pet--and it can be worrisome when you see them not acting like themselves. Fortunately, there are three vital signs you can easily assess at home in order to determine if they are actually sick. If you feel you need to contact the veterinarian for help, having this information could help them determine the status of your pet and the best course of action.

The New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association advises that you check the temperature, pulse, and gum color of your pet, as they can provide very useful information. If you’ve never taken your pet’s temperature or your pet dislikes having their mouth opened, it’s a good idea to work on adapting your pet to these tests before there is a medical emergency. Not only will regular checking help your pet to be more comfortable with the idea of someone prodding about their body, but it will give you a good look at what their normal results are so you’ll know if something is off in the future.

Check Your Pet’s Vital Signs

Vital #1: Temperature 

If you’ve ever taken your pet to the vet, then you probably know that it’s general practice to take their temperature rectally. If you are comfortable with this process, purchase a rectal thermometer, lubricate it with Vaseline or K-Y Jelly, and gently insert it 1-2 inches into the anus beneath your pet’s tail.

Not comfortable with the idea of rectal thermometers? Don’t worry. You can purchase ear thermometers for your pet, too!

Your pet’s temperature should fall into the 101-102 Fahrenheit range. If you get a reading that is higher than this, your pet may have an infection and need to see the vet. Just be aware that exercise, sunbathing and bouts of excitement can cause a false elevation. If your pet’s temp comes in on the low side, this could be a warning to look for other symptoms like lethargy or weakness. But as with the higher temps, cold weather and post-nap chills can also create a false drop.

Vital #2: Pulse 

To measure your pet’s pulse, you’ll need to softly press your fingers against their upper-inner thigh or against their chest behind their left front leg. It can take a lot of practice to accurately measure your pet’s heart rate and blood pressure, so practice repeatedly until you’ve got it down and know where to place your fingers/hand for the most effective read.

Normal resting heart beats in dogs and cats range between 60-150 times per minute, depending on size and other factors. As this varies greatly, talk to your veterinarian to see what your pet’s normal range should be. If you find your pet’s heart rate is more rapid than normal, this could be an indicator of heart disease, shock, or that they are in pain. Slower beats could also point to disease, especially if your pet suffers from fainting or seizures. However, much like your pet’s temperature, these numbers can be affected by activity, overexertion, and simple excitement.

Vital #3: Gum Color

Checking your pet’s gum color is by far the easiest of the vitals to check. Simply lift their lips and look at their tongue and their gums just above their upper teeth. Their gums should appear a shade of pink to red. If you apply pressure to their gums, they should blanch to a white color and instantly return to their normal color once you remove the pressure. If you notice that it takes longer than 2 seconds to return to a rosy pink, this could be a sign that your pet has poor circulation. If their gums are a very pale or white your pet may be suffering from shock or anemia. If they appear yellowish, your pet could be suffering from liver disease. On the opposite end of the spectrum, gums that are too red or painful may mean your pet had gingivitis or dental disease. Unfortunately, if you have a breed that has naturally dark or black gums, this test may not be very useful to you.

If you have any doubts or concerns, always seek professional treatment before attempting to administer tests on your own.

First Aid Tips for Pet Owners

Emergency treatment at home shouldn’t be a substitute for veterinary care--but having some first aid knowledge can be helpful in saving your pet’s life until you can get to the clinic. Below are five some common pet emergencies and what you can do about it.

1. Your pet has ingested something toxic.

  • Check the label for the instructions on what to do if exposed (wash it off, flush the eyes, etc). You can also call the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Hotline at 888-426-4435.
  • Collect any material that your pet may have chewed or vomited in a bag and bring it with you to the vet.


    Related Read: Common Plants Poisonous to Dogs and Cats

2. Your pet is having a seizure.

  • Keep your pet away from any objects that could cause harm.
  • Do not try to restrain them.
  • Time how long the seizure lasts.
  • Keep your pet warm and calm once the seizure passes.

3. Your pet has fractured/broken a bone.

  • Muzzle your pet.
  • Gently lay your pet on a flat, supportive surface.
  • Make a stretcher out of a board or other firm surface that can be used to transport them carefully to the vet.

4. Your pet is bleeding externally.

  • Muzzle your pet.
  • Put pressure on the wound with a clean, thick gauze pad until it clots.
  • If the bleeding is severe and on the legs, apply a bandage on the wound and then apply a tourniquet (using an elastic band or gauze). Every 15-20 minutes, loosen the tourniquet for 20 seconds.

5. Your pet has heatstroke.

  • Move them to a shaded area out of direct sunlight.
  • Place a cool, wet towel around its head and neck. Rewet and rewrap every few minutes until your pet is cooled.
  • Run water over your pet’s body and use your hands to massage it in, focusing on the abdomen and between the hind legs.

Keep a Pet First Aid Kit

Having a pet first aid kit on hand can certainly help your emergency treatment go more smoothly. According to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, your kit should contain:

  • Absorbent gauze pads
  • Adhesive tape
  • Cotton balls or swabs
  • Fresh 3% hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting (always check with veterinarian or animal poison control expert before giving to your pet)
  • Ice pack
  • Disposable gloves
  • Scissors with a blunt end
  • Tweezers
  • OTC antibiotic ointment
  • An oral syringe or turkey baster
  • Liquid dishwashing detergent (for bathing)
  • Towels
  • Small flashlight
  • Alcohol wipes
  • Styptic powder
  • Saline eye solution
  • Artificial tear gel
  • Phone number, clinic name, address of your veterinarian as well as local veterinary emergency clinics

Preparation is Key

To be prepared for even more serious situations, consider taking the American Red Cross Cat and Dog First Aid online course and downloading the Pet First Aid App. The course and app feature what to do in emergencies, how to create an emergency preparedness plan, how to maintain your pet’s health and much more.

In an emergency, it is always best to seek medical attention for your pet. Please be sure follow-up with your veterinarian after any pet-related emergency or illness. 

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Originally published July 2018. Updated April 2019.

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