Vital signs are measurements of the body’s most basic functions. This includes temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, capillary refill time, mucous membrane color, and hydration status. As a veterinarian, there are a number of scenarios where you need to monitor animal vital signs in your clinic. This includes during a routine examination, if an animal is sick or injured, and, most importantly, when an animal is undergoing surgery and under anaesthetic

When you monitor an animal’s vital signs, you can either do it manually or use monitoring equipment. The method you use will usually depend on what stats you need to monitor, how much data you need access to, and the circumstances of the moment. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the best methods for monitoring animal vital signs in your veterinary clinic.

 

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How To Monitor Animal Vital Signs Manually

Let’s start by taking a look at how you can monitor animal vital signs manually. These methods are best used for routine examinations and check-ups. They can also be used if you are in an emergency situation and don’t have access to more high-tech equipment. You can then use the data you collect to detect if there are any potential medical issues you need to treat.

Heart Rate or Pulse Rate

The first step when you manually check animal vital signs is monitoring the heart rate or pulse rate. You can either do this by using a stethoscope to listen to the animal’s heart, or by taking a reading of their pulse. The pulse is the local rhythmic contraction of an artery (contraction of the left ventricle), while the heartbeat is the closure of the heart valves.

Let’s start with the heart rate. If you don’t have a stethoscope to hand, then you can put your hands on the animal’s chest and feel the beats. If the animal is very overweight, it can be difficult to feel this.

Count the beats that you hear or feel for 15 seconds, then multiply this number by 4 to get the animal’s heartbeats per minute. The beat should be regular with no changes in speed or strength.

Generally speaking, normal heart rates should be:

  • Cat: 110-180 beats per minute (although up to 200 bpm may be normal).
  • Dog: 60-180 beats per minute (small dogs have a faster heart rate than large ones)

Anything outside this range suggests that there might be an issue.

To check the pulse rate, put your fingers on the inside of the animal’s hind legs, near where the leg meets the body.  If you press gently at this juncture, you should be able to feel the pulse of the femoral artery.

Respiratory Rate

You can use a similar method for measuring breathing as you would for calculating the heartbeat. Just count the number of breaths in 15 seconds, then multiply by 4. Sometimes it can help if you gently place your hand on the animal’s chest so that you can visualize the breath movement more easily. 

The general standard for cats and dogs is:

  • Cat: 20-30 breaths per minute
  • Dog: 10-30 breaths per minute 

You should also check to see how much abdominal movement there is. A healthy animal will move their abdomen minimally, if at all. If an animal is struggling to breathe, you might see the belly move deeply in and out. Other signs that they are struggling to breathe include stretching their neck out, and breathing with their mouth open.

 

Temperature

The easiest way to check an animal’s temperature is using a rectal thermometer. Digital thermometers are easier to use, although you can use a traditional mercury thermometer if you prefer. 

Make sure you lubricate the thermometer first. Then insert it deeply and press the end of the thermometer against the side of the rectum. If you are using a digital thermometer, wait until it beeps before removing it. If you are using a mercury thermometer, wait a good minute before you take a reading.

In dogs, any reading over 39.5°C means that they have a fever. For cats, anything over 39.2°C warrants immediate evaluation.

 

Mucous Membrane Color and Capillary Refill Time

The final important examination when you manually monitor animal vital signs is checking their mucous membrane color and capillary refill time. This helps you ensure that oxygenated blood is flowing around the body as it should be.

To do this, you first need to check the color of the animal’s gums. If the gums are a nice pale pink color, then all is well. The next step is pressing down firmly on the gums to check capillary refill time. The gum should turn white when pressed and become pink again when released. Counting how many seconds it takes to return to a normal color will give you an indication of perfusion. Normal capillary refill time is less than 2 seconds. Anything longer than this may indicate compromised circulation due to cold, shock, cardiovascular disease, anaemia, or other causes.

 

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How to Monitor Animal Vital Signs with Monitoring Equipment

The other way you can monitor animal vital signs is using monitoring equipment. This gives you a much more accurate reading of an animal’s vital signs. 

Traditionally, wireless and telemetry monitoring devices were only used to monitor animals during surgery and immediate post-operative care. This was mainly down to the sheer size of the equipment. However, these days there is a range of lightweight devices with streamlined designs so monitoring equipment is a lot more accessible. As a result, many veterinary clinics and pet owners are now using these devices to get everyday readings of animal vital signs. 

This can be a very useful tool for animals with pre-existing and chronic conditions as you get access to around-the-clock monitoring to better track recovery and diagnose disorders. Devices can be used for pre & post-surgery, ICU, immediate care, ambulatory monitoring, and recovery.

 

Monitoring During Surgery

Multiparametric analysis is usually conducted using a multiparameter monitor. This is a device used to monitor a patient’s vital signs, and it is mainly used in intensive care, hospitalization or ER. Devices can be used to monitor cardiac activity (ECG), blood pressure (NIBP), respiration (RESP), oxygen saturation (SpO2) and temperature (TEMP). Multiparameter monitors display a range of vital stats on a single display, providing you with valuable data to help you understand the condition of the patient. 

Continuous Monitoring From Home

Wearables are becoming a popular way to monitor the health of animals. Veterinarians can rely on technology including RFID sensors, GPS trackers, motion sensors, accelerometer sensors, cameras, and transmitters to continuously monitor animal vital signs. This includes heart rate, temperature, breathing and sleep. 

Devices can also be used to ensure animals are getting the level of activity they need each day. For example, smart collars can be used to track and monitor dogs via GPS and LTE-M in order to measure steps on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. This helps owners understand the health and behavior of their pets.

 

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