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The Path to Pet Health

Read the Signs of Illness by Dr. Steven Timm

Recognizing abnormalities is a key to keeping your dog or cat on the path to good health. I suggest two rules of the road.

First: Establish a benchmark of norms.
Second: Remain vigilant.

It's a course of action that every pet owner can follow.

Setting Benchmarks

Here's a routine procedure for establishing your pet's norms. Some steps require only observation. Some take a little work but give vital information. Your pet may even enjoy the close contact required. If you feel uneasy about doing any of the physical checks ask your vet for some coaching.

Check for:

Breathing pattern: Expect to see a rate of approximately 15-20 respirations per minute.

Heart rate and rhythm:

Normal rate for cats (and other small animals) is a steady 120-180 beats per minute. Dogs, especially larger breeds, generally have rates closer to 60-100 beats. It may slow down on exhalation, which is normal. You can feel the beat between the ribs just behind the front legs. If you can't keep your dog or cat still for a minute, check for 10-20 seconds and multiply the result accordingly.


Eyes should be clear and glistening; whites should be bright with very few blood vessels.


Normal gum color is pink or pale pink. When the gums are pressed they should go from white to the normal pink in one-two seconds. (This is the CRT or capillary refill time, which indicates blood circulation to the tissues.) It will be over before your pet knows it.


You can learn the norms for your pet's body by giving him/her a nice massage. There's no reason both of you can't enjoy this. Get to know how well the boney structures like ribs and backbone are covered; feel for skin lumps or bumps. Note how the temperature of the nose, ears, and belly compare to that of the furrier back and sides, where you can't feel the warmth of the body. Rub the legs and stomach to feel how tense your pet normally is in these areas.


Body temperature is a valuable indicator of health. Dogs' and cats' normal temperature is higher than humans, generally 100.5-102.5 degrees fahrenheit.

Spotting Problems

Look your pet over regularly. If you see deviations from the norm look more closely - and make notes if necessary. Here are some things that should make your antenna rise.


Abnormal behavior such as hiding, lethargy, increased or decreased eating, drinking or sleeping, and any changes in urination or defecation can be signs of trouble. Convulsions, twitching, shaking or disorientation are possible clues to nervous disorders. Protracted vomiting or attempts to vomit can mean intestinal disturbance, other organ dysfunction or certain types of tumors.

Stance and gait:

Inability to stand, a drunken gait or lameness, walking in circles or hunching up, slow movement or reluctance to climb stairs or get on the furniture all may indicate pain.

Other difficulties. See how your pet holds his/her head and if s/he seems reluctant to look up or down when approaching food or water.


Count the respirations in one minute and be alert for labored breathing, variation from the normal count, foam from the nose or mouth, or abnormally loud breathing.


This is the place to start a "nose to tail" search. Check eyes, nose and mouth for odor, discharge, bleeding, or redness; look for cloudiness in the eyes. Many owners regularly check for foreign objects in the mouth; include broken teeth and bruises in the search, and add a gum inspection. If color and CRT vary from the norm it may be a red flag.


Give your pet a massage. And BEWARE! Avoid sore areas, as an animal in pain will snap and may bite the hand that feeds it. Get the heart rate. Check for lumps, bumps or pockets of fluid, and any open wounds, swelling, blood or raw skin that can indicate recent trauma. Watch for tensing, pain or distention when you rub the abdomen. Inspect paws and see if claws are overly long or broken. Finally, go over the hind quarters, and if there's no sign of pain or wounds, try to take a temperature. There's only one way to do it, and that's rectally. You can have your veterinarian demonstrate, and if you feel comfortable doing it, buy a thermometer and designate it exclusively for your pet.

And be sure to keep track of your pet's weight. Weight loss can be one of the single clearest signs of serious illness.

Taking Action

1. Be prepared.

You can discuss emergency care with your veterinarian so that you are both prepared to act in case of an emergency. Know the quickest route to veterinary care. Have big blankets or towels available to wrap your pet in, especially if there is bleeding, trauma or seizure; and a stretcher, board or box to use as a carrier.

2. Call your vet.

Be practical, not everything is an emergency. But if you see significant changes in your pet call your vet. Of course if your pet is in great distress, e.g., has collapsed, is hemorrhaging or has suffered a trauma, prior preparation will help you take the most expedient action. And don't leave pets unattended where they might hurt themselves.

The steps I've outlined can help you make your pet's journey through life healthier and smoother.

Remember, your pet and your concerns are dictated by individual and specific needs. Please do not substitute the above recommendations for the advice of trained professionals who can examine and treat your pet after a thorough examination.

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