Be an advocate for your dog's health in three easy steps

FREEBIE: A canine physical exam cheat sheet. Use this quick reference guide while you are practicing your dog's exam! Click here!


Who says physical exams are just for your veterinarian to perform? Especially when they are only performed once a year- For example: So many times, during a yearly exam I will lift up the lip of a dog’s mouth, and the owner is in horror at the amount of tartar that has accumulated on the teeth over the last year. A huge percent of my clients never look in their dog’s mouths!

The mouth is a good place to start and a good place to look for disease. Imagine if you looked in your own mouth only once a year at your yearly doctor’s appointment. First, gross. Second, think of all the disease that would accumulate over the course of 12 months.

If you follow me in my Instagram stories you probably have heard me say more than once that: “In order to know abnormal you must first know normal,” in fact you have probably heard me completely butcher this saying. - Mixing up my words is my strong suit. Especially on video!

What I am trying to say here is by performing regular exams on your dog you can establish a knowledge base of what is normal. So, you might be wondering what a good starting point is for your physical exam assessment. I will say that it takes practice- but for our purposes we are not going to make it overwhelming or intimidating. We are all about baby steps here. And after reading this blog post you will realize it doesn’t have to be complicated. We will highlight three really important areas of your exam to get the ball rolling and establish a foundation of “normal” for your dog. This will give you a general overview of their health. Instantly!

My challenge for you: do these three things today. Like right now. Go get your dog and run through this blog post with him or her sitting next to you!

I promise you this will take less than 10 minutes. And the beauty of it? The more you do it the quicker it gets.

So, let’s talk about three important highlights of the physical exam. We will start here and build later. Today is about a quick win and establishing a baseline.  


1) The mouth- it can tell you so much. The mouth can be used to assess if your dog has had blood loss, if he has a severe body wide infection, and how hydrated he is. It can also answer the following questions: does he have an infection in his mouth? Is he in shock? Is he getting enough oxygen? Is his airway clear?

So, take note of his gum color which can tell you: oxygen levels, circulation, shock, infection. What his gums feel like to the touch: hydration status. And his capillary refill time: circulation status, infection, shock. And write them all down!

To get a capillary refill time- gently press against the gums with your thumb until the area turns white. Count in seconds how long it takes for the gums to turn from white back to pink. Normal is less than 2 seconds- but remember you are establishing what is normal for your own dog right now!

All of these questions can be answered by peeking in the mouth- and you can do it in 5- 10 seconds or less!


2) Heart rate, respiration rate, and temperature. We will refer to these parameters as “vitals.” Every dog is going to be different here. Of course, you can google “normal” HR, RR, and temps for dog- but I am not a believer in a one size fits all, cookie cutter approach. ESPECIALLY if you find yourself in an emergency. Know that the age of your dog, size, breed, and fitness level will make these parameters highly variable! So, getting a good grasp on your dog’s normal vital signs is a really good idea. In fact, you should be so comfortable with these figures that you can spout them off- off the cuff. Until you are comfortable with your dog’s “normal,” I would keep a journal and log these figures. One, it helps you remain accountable for actually checking, and two you then have a written log to refer back to.

You can also get in the habit of checking these parameters while out hiking, riding in the car, or sitting around the campfire. It is a good idea to know where your dog’s vitals lie in different situations.

3) Finally, find your dog’s pulse. The femoral pulse is an excellent place to start. This is located over his/her femur bone on the inner thigh. Gently press with three fingers in this area. Keep repositioning your fingers until you find it. Knowing what your dog’s pulse feels like is an easy way to assess the circulation and take the heart rate. Getting in the habit of knowing how this normally feels is so important because when it is abnormal- you will know something is wrong and you can act quicker. A weak pulse can mean severe dehydration, blood loss, low blood pressure, heart issues, or shock. While a bounding pulse can mean the patient is at a different state of shock, stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart issues, or severe infection. This can take some practice, so just make a commitment to check it often so you can establish what’s normal for your dog!


Knowing these parameters enables and empowers you to make good decisions quickly, and it allows you to be a better advocate for your dog’s health.

So right now, if you haven’t already. First: give your dog an ear scratch and a belly rub for me, then practice the principles I have outlined above.

Trust me on its importance.

And if you have any questions about what’s normal or abnormal for your dog don’t hesitate to reach out!! I love hearing your guys’ questions- and hearing your questions helps me help you! Which in turn help’s your dog. Which is why we are all here.

And until next time,

Explore more with your dog!

Libbie Fort, DVM


P.S. If you haven't already, download your physical exam cheat sheet by clicking here!

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