Physical Exam Checklist for Pets: First Aid

Date Published: 12/31/1994
Date Reviewed/Revised: 03/26/2020

To identify an illness or abnormal situation, you must first be able to recognize what is normal for your pet. You know your pet better than anyone else and will have to decide when an abnormal situation warrants professional help. Sometimes the condition is so serious it leaves no doubt. Frequently, the changes are subtle or happen over a long period of time and it is important that they are recognized and addressed. Early recognition of a serious problem can save your pet's life.

The following information teaches you how to examine your pet and determine what is normal. The primary suggestion is to give your pet a "mini" physical exam occasionally when there is nothing wrong so you get used to what is normal for your pet. Record the normal values using the guide at the end of this article.

Before starting a hands-on exam, stand back and look at your pet for a few minutes. The posture, breathing, activity level, and general appearance can tell you a lot.

Now start the physical exam, making sure to look at the following areas. Consult a veterinarian if an abnormal condition exists or you are concerned about any exam findings.

A hands-on physical exam in the comfort of your own home is the best way to learn what is normal for your pet.

Nose

Normal:  Moist and clean

Abnormal:

  • Dry or cracked 
  • Nasal discharge (such as thick greenish mucus)
  • Bleeding

Skin

The skin is an important indicator of overall health.  Feel your pet's skin and haircoat, noting any masses or sores. Many older pets can develop accumulations of fatty tissue known as lipomas. In order to differentiate these benign masses from cancerous ones, it is important to have your pet evaluated by your veterinarian and have an aspirate performed. This simple and quick procedure can help your veterinarian determine the nature of the lump and help you decide if further tests or treatment are needed.

Normal

  • Shiny and smooth haircoat
  • Soft and unbroken skin
  • Minimal odor

Abnormal

  • Sparse or patchy haircoat
  • Open sores or sounds
  • Oily or greenish discharge
  • Foul or rancid odor

Eyes

Normal

  • Bright, moist, and clear
  • Centered between the eyelid
  • Pupils equal in size
  • Whites of the eye should not appear colored (such as red or yellow) and should have only a few visible blood vessels
  • Pupils shrink equally when bright light is shined into either eye
  • Pupils enlarge equally when the eyes are held closed or the room darkened.

Abnormal

  • Dull, sunken eyes. Eyes that appear dry. Thick discharge from eyes. 
  • One or both eyes not centered. 
  • Pupils unequal in size. 
  • Abnormal colors that indicate problems are yellow (jaundice), or red (bloodshot). 
  • Pupils fail to respond or respond differently when bright light is shined into either eye. 
  • Pupils fail to respond or respond differently to the dark.

Pay close attention to the color of the whites of your pet's eyes, as well as the pupils' response to changes in light.

Ears

Chronic ear problems are common in pets, and are often a result of allergies to inhaled pollen (like hay fever in people) that are then complicated by secondary infections with bacteria or fungus. Ear infections can be painful and head shaking can lead to an accumulation of blood (or hematoma) in the floppy part of the ear called the pinna.

Normal

  • Skin smooth and without wounds
  • Clean and dry
  • Almost odor-free
  • Typical carriage for breed
  • Pain-free

Abnormal

  • Wounds or scabs on skin. Lumps or bumps on skin. Any sign of rash
  • Crust, moisture, or other discharge in ear canal
  • Any strong odor from the ear
  • Atypical carriage for breed; for example, a droopy ear in a breed with normally erect ears
  • Painful or swollen ears.

Your pet's ears should be clean and odor-free.

Mouth

Normal

  • Teeth are clean and white
  • Gums are uniformly pink.

Abnormal 

  • Tartar accumulation around the base of the teeth
  • The gums are red, pale, inflamed, or sore in appearance.

Press on the gum tissue with your finger or thumb and release quickly. Watch the color return to the gums. This checks the capillary refill time (CRT) and is a crude assessment of how well the heart and circulatory system are working. A normal CRT is 1 to 2 seconds for color to return. This can be a difficult test to interpret sometimes (for example, if your pet has dark or pigmented gums), and should not be relied upon as definitive evidence that your pet is sick or healthy.

Gums should be pink -- teeth should be clean and white.

Neck, Chest, and Breathing

Normal

  • It is difficult to hear the pet breathe at all except when he or she is panting. 
  • The chest wall moves easily to and fro during respiration. 
  • Most of the act of breathing is performed by the chest wall. 

Abnormal

  • Any unusual noise heard while the pet is breathing could indicate a problem, especially if the noise is new for the pet. 
  • There is noticeable effort by the pet to move the chest wall. 
  • The abdomen is actively involved in the act of inhaling and exhaling.
  • The pet stands with elbows held out further than normal or, is unable to rest or lie down.

Abdomen (Stomach)

Touch and feel (palpate) the stomach. Start just behind the ribs and gently press your hands into the abdomen, feeling for abnormalities. If your pet has just eaten, you may be able to feel an enlargement in the left part of the abdomen just under the ribs. Proceed toward the rear of the body, passing your hands gently over the abdomen.

Normal

  • No lumps, bumps, or masses
  • No discomfort on palpation 
  • No distension of the abdominal wall.

Abnormal 

  • Any lump, bump, or mass may be abnormal. 
  • Palpation causes groaning or difficulty breathing. Any evidence or indication of pain is a serious finding. Use caution to avoid being bitten.
  • The abdomen feels hard or tense and it appears distended.

Any pain felt during an abdominal palpation could be a problem. Consult your veterinarian.

Skin Turgor Test 

The skin turgor test may is helpful to determine whether an animal is well hydrated. (See dehydration.) This test can be affected by several factors other than hydration status, such as weight loss, age and general skin condition, but it can help you make a rough determination of your pet's hydration status. To perform this test, pull the skin over the chest or back into a tent and release it quickly; avoid the skin of the neck as it's often too thick for this test. Observe the skin as it returns to its resting position.

Normal

  • The skin snaps back into position quickly.

Abnormal 

  • The skin returns slowly or remains slightly tented. This is a sign of possible dehydration.

Pulse and Heart Rate

Learn to locate the pulse on your pet before a crisis. The best place on a cat or dog is the femoral artery in the groin area. Place your fingers around the front of the hind leg and move upward until the back of your hand meets the abdominal wall. Move your fingertips back and forth on the inside of the thigh until you feel the pulsing sensation as the blood rushes through the artery. Count the number of pulses in 15 seconds and multiply by 4. This will give you the pulse rate in beats per minute (bpm). Pulse rate is a highly variable finding and can be affected by recent exercise, excitement or stress. Do not use the heart rate at the sole evidence that your pet is sick or healthy.

Resting heart rates listed are for healthy animals at rest at home, not for animals evaluated in a veterinary clinic where higher heart rates than those listed might be detected due to excitement, stress of a visit to the clinic, or disease.

Normal

  • Cats: 100 to 160 beats per minute (bpm). A relaxed cat may have a slower pulse.
  • Dogs: 60 to 160 bpm. Relaxed or athletic dogs tend to have slower heart rates.
  • Pulse is easily palpated, strong, and regular.
  • Normal resting rate is 15 to 60 breaths per minute. A sleeping or resting cat would be near the low end, while an active cat would be higher.
  • An increased resting respiratory rate may be a sign that a disease is progressing. If you know your cat's normal resting rate is 15 breaths a minute, and after living with heart disease the resting rate goes up to 30 while the cat is asleep, the doubled rate means it's time to see the veterinarian again.

Abnormal

  • Too rapid or too slow
  • Pulse is weak, irregular, or hard to locate.

Learn how to properly take your pet's pulse.

Temperature 

Taking your pet's temperature is an easy and important procedure.  Use a digital rectal thermometer. The ear ones are less reliable and a rectal one should be used. Digital thermometers are easier to read and can be inexpensively purchased at a pharmacy.

Rectal temperatures are more accurate than axillary (between the front leg and the body) temperatures. Lubricate the thermometer with petroleum jelly. Gently and slowly insert the thermometer into the rectum about 1 or 2 inches. If it does not slide in easily, do not force it. Leave it in for 2 minutes (or until the thermometer beeps), then read and record the temperature.

Normal

  • Temperature is between 101F and 102.5F. 
  • The thermometer is almost clean when removed.

Abnormal

  • Temperature is below 100F or above 103F. 
  • There is evidence of blood, diarrhea, or black, tarry stool on the thermometer.

It may be easier to take your cat's temperature if you have someone to help you. Do not risk taking your pet's temperature if you feel there is a risk of being bitten.

Normals: A Final Note

Know the normals for your pet. Record the results of your pet's home examination using the outline on the following page. Watch your pet closely so you know when something is wrong. Become familiar with these normals before a crisis so you can recognize an abnormal finding.

Normal Values for my Pet

My pet ______________________ has the following normal values:
Normal Weight: _______________ pounds
Resting Heart Rate (Pulse): ______________________ beats per minute
Resting Respiratory Rate: ______________________ breaths per minute
Rectal Temperature: ______________________ degrees Fahrenheit
Normal Gum Color: ______________________
Normal Whites of the Eyes: ______________________

This information is intended as a general reference for the lay public, and is not intended to replace the advice of a veterinarian. A veterinarian should be consulted before starting, stopping or changing any medications.

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