Written by Kaydee Barker


If your dog gets sick or starts acting funny, how can you tell what's wrong? Although you won't be able to diagnose your dog like a vet, you may be able to find some clues before taking them to the clinic. This is especially helpful if you are out enjoying the trails. Here's how you can check for clues.

Taking your dog’s vitals

It’s a good idea to know your dog’s baseline vitals. In other words, when your dog is healthy, what is their temperature, respiratory rate and pulse? Check these on your dog by following these steps:

  1. Check their pulse by wrapping your hand around the front of their hind leg with the back of your hand touching their abdomen. You may need to move your fingers around a bit on the inside of their thigh to find the pulse. You may also be able to find their pulse by placing your hand or a stethoscope over the front of their chest. Their heart rate is the amount of “pulses” you feel within one minute (beats per minute). This is generally between 70 and 160 beats per minute at rest. Since this is a large range, it is good to know your dog’s resting heart rate before an emergency. It’s abnormal to find:
    1. A resting heart rate above 160 or below 70
    2. A pulse that is weak, “thready” (very fine and feels like a cord under the finger), irregular (not a consistent beat - such as one beat, a pause, and then three beats), or hard to find
  2. To check their breathing, listen close to their mouth. Unless they are panting, their breathing should be quiet. Press your hands on their rib cage on either side of their spine and feel while they breathe. You should feel expansion in the chest on both sides. You should not feel expansion in their abdomen while they breathe. Breathing and moving the chest should seem easy, and your dog should have a normal posture. The respiratory rate (how many breaths they take in a minute) should be between 10 and 30 breaths when they are at rest. These are abnormal:
    1. Wheezing or any unusual noise while breathing- this may indicate asthma, allergies, or an injury
    2. Noticeable difficulty breathing or moving the chest
    3. Expansion and contraction of the abdomen when inhaling and exhaling
    4. Standing with elbows held out far or inability to rest or lie down
    5. Fewer than 10 breaths per minute or more than 35 breaths per minute when at rest
  3. Check their temperature next. You can use an ear thermometer or a rectal thermometer, which is more accurate. To take their temperature by ear, use an ear thermometer designed for dogs and gently place the tip as far into the ear canal as possible. The ear temperature should be between 100 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit. To use a rectal thermometer, lubricate the tip with petroleum jelly and insert into the rectum 1-2 inches. Leave for two minutes, and then read. This temperature should be between 100.5 and 102.5 degrees. In a pinch, you could also take their axillary temperature by placing a digital thermometer in their front armpit. The axillary temperature should be between 99 and 102 degrees. It’s abnormal to see:
    1. A temperature outside of the above parameters
    2. Blood or evidence of diarrhea or black stool on a rectal thermometer Blood or discharge on an ear thermometer

Conducting a head-to-tail exam

Other clues are found on their body. What do their noses, eyes, ears, and gums look like when they are healthy and when something’s wrong?

  1. Pull up on the skin of either their back or chest to make a small “tent.” This checks their skin turgor, evidencing hydration. When you release the tent, the skin should fall back to normal immediately. It’s abnormal for:
    1. The skin to slowly return to normal - this indicates moderate dehydration
    2. The skin to stay slightly tented - this indicates severe dehydration
  2. Touch their nose. It should be a little moist (though not every dog has a “wet nose”) and soft to the touch. It’s abnormal if its:
    1. Dry or cracked - this may indicate dehydration, hyperthermia, or
    2. Got a lot of discharge, especially thick greenish mucus - like in humans, this indicates an infection
    3. Bleeding
  3. Run your hands through their fur/hair and over their skin. If they are clean, their fur/hair should be shiny, their skin soft, and there should be no odor. Look for bumps, tumors and sores. Older pets often develop harmless fatty tumors called lipomas, but a veterinarian must evaluate to make sure that tumors you find aren’t cancerous. These are abnormal:
    1. A sparse or patchy coat - this may indicate food allergies
    2. Open sores
    3. Oily or greenish discharge - this may indicate infection
    4. Foul odor - this may also indicate infection 
  4. Look closely at your dog’s eyes. They should be moist and clear, 
    stockvault-beaglesmalland the whites of the eyes should be white with only a few visible blood vessels. Cover their eyes. The pupils should have enlarged under your hands, and they should rapidly shrink simultaneously when you uncover them. In the dark, you test this by shining a light into the eyes. The pupils should still shrink in response to light. It’s abnormal to see:
    1. Dull eyes, dry eyes, or sunken eyes
    2. Thick discharge from the eyes
    3. Yellow “whites” of the eyes - this indicates jaundice
    4. Red, bloodshot “whites” of the eyes - this may indicate allergies, eye injuries, or stress
    5. Pupils that are unequal in size, pupils that respond differently to light or darkness, or pupils that don’t shrink in response to light or enlarge in response to darkness    - any of these may indicate a brain injury
  5. Look inside the ears. The skin should be pinkish (though this depends on the breed of your dog) and smooth. Feel the skin on the inside of the ears. It shouldn’t hurt them if their ears are healthy. If it hurts, they will jump, pull away, yelp, and/or snarl in response. The skin should feel smooth and dry. Now smell the ears. There should be little to no odor. These are abnormal:
    1. Wounds, bumps, or scabs
    2. Red, moist, or crusted skin
    3. Discharge or excessive oil in the ear canal
    4. Any strong odor - this usually indicates a yeast infection
    5. Swelling or signs of pain from touch
  6. Look in their mouth. Their gums should be uniform in color - usually pink (except for markings that may be in their mouth - such as black spots). Gently press on the gums and release quickly. The color should go white where you pressed, but return to pink within a couple seconds after you release. This is called “capillary refill time,” or CRT, and it checks how well the circulatory system is working. These are abnormal:
    1. Bright red or pale gums - this may indicate hyperthermia (overheating).
    2. Inflamed or “sore looking” gums
  7. Beginning just behind the ribs, feel and gently press your hands into the abdomen, working toward their tails. Their belly may not be completely uniform if they have recently eaten or if they are pregnant or nursing. These are abnormal:
    1. Any lump or bump
    2. Pain with touch as evidenced by crying, flinching, or difficulty breathing
    3. Distension, meaning that it is “ballooned out,” hardened, and tense

Try this out on your pup while they are healthy, then write down their "norms" so you know when something is off in the future! Good luck!

Our Story

Owned by Chris & Nicole Van Ruler, Outdoor K9 is a pet store based out of Steamboat Springs, CO, that specializes in outdoor products for your canine companion.  The Van Rulers moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in the spring of 2012. In Steamboat they found a a community that was both family- and dog-friendly, with endless outdoor recreational opportunities. This inspired the family, in their latest adventure, to move to Steamboat Springs, a place they wanted to both raise their family (currently two dogs and a little girl) and share their love of dogs and adventure with the community they love.

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