Dog health checklist: What is your dog's normal?

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Dog health checklist: What is your dog's normal? - a sitting dog tilting its head

Every dog is unique in their normal, healthy vital signs, appearance, and behavior. Understanding what a dog’s “normal” is can help dog owners catch signs of injury or illness early and provide a healthy life. Continue reading if you have ever asked:

  • What are vital signs, and how do I check them?
  • What does a healthy dog look like?
  • Is my dog’s behavior normal?
  • How can I tell if my dog is sick?
  • How will my vet treat my dog if they seem sick?
  • How can I keep my dog healthy?

When performing a physical examination, veterinarians have a range of what is considered normal when it comes to vitals, appearance, and behavior. Some dogs fall outside of this range but are completely healthy. Pet parents need to know what is normal for their dogs in case they become ill later and should schedule a vet visit to follow up.

What are the normal vital signs of a dog?

In the veterinary world, TPR stands for temperature, pulse, and respiration. TPR are the core vital signs measured during veterinary appointments as part of regular wellness visits. Changes in these vitals are important indicators of potential illness. Dog owners may want to learn how to check these vitals at home.


The normal temperature range for healthy adult dogs is between 100F (37.8C) and 102.5F (39.2C), though an individual dog’s normal body temperature can be slightly higher or lower than this range. In general, a healthy dog’s temperature does not drop below 99F (37.2C) or rise above 104F (40C). However, a dog’s temperature does rise if they have been exercising or outside in the heat. Newborn puppies have lower body temperature until they’re a few weeks old. A dog’s temperature is taken rectally with a digital thermometer coated with petroleum jelly or another safe lubricant for their comfort. If you would like to know how to safely take your dog’s temperature, an online vet can assist you.

Pulse rate

Pulse rates can vary in dogs by size, weight, and age. In general, small dogs have a faster heart rate, about 90 to 120 beats per minute at rest. Large dog breeds have slower heart rates, at about 60 to 90 beats per minute at rest. When calculating the pulse rate, feel for the heartbeat on the chest or inside the thigh and count for 15 seconds, then multiply that number by four. Finding the heartbeat inside the thigh can be tricky. A veterinarian can show you how at an in-person or virtual vet appointment. Check that your dog’s pulse is even with no skips or extra beats.

Respiratory Rate

When at rest and not panting, a healthy dog’s respiratory rate is approximately 18 - 34 breaths per minute, but this can vary widely. It’s easiest to count breaths by watching or feeling for movement on the chest or sides for 15 seconds, then multiplying that number by four. Check that your dog is breathing easily with no coughing, raspiness, wheezing, or wet sounds coming from the lungs. A healthy dog can have over 200 breaths per minute while panting, so labored breathing, a blue tinge to the tongue, or obvious signs of discomfort are more reliable indicators of respiratory distress if a dog is panting.

Gums and tongue

When measuring respiration rate, check the color of your dog’s tongue and gums. A healthy dog’s tongue is never blue or purple unless they are a breed with naturally dark tongues, like Chow Chows and Shar Peis. A healthy dog’s gums are moist and pink if they are not pigmented. You can check your dog’s capillary refill time by pressing on a pink part of the gums. The pink color should return to your dog’s gums in less than two seconds. If it doesn’t and your dog shows other symptoms, this may indicate an emergency, so reach out to a vet right away.

Rounding out your physical assessment of your dog

A thorough physical examination is conducted during regular wellness visits with your veterinarian, but it’s important to know what is normal at home as well.

  • Eyes: Bright and alert with no discharge or discoloration
  • Ears: Alert with no pain, redness, swelling, discharge, itchiness, or foul odor
  • Nose: Breathing easily with no nasal discharge
  • Hydration status: Skin bounces back easily with no tenting when a fold at the back of the head is pinched up
  • Gait: Walking and running easily with no limping, stiffness, or favoring of one side
  • Mouth: Teeth clean and shiny with no tartar buildup or bad breath
  • Coat and skin: Clean, smooth, and shiny coat with clear skin underneath
  • Body condition: Ribs and spine felt easily but not seen, belly and waist tucked

Combined with vitals, your dog’s overall physical appearance is a great tool to help identify health concerns early and determine if your dog needs veterinary care. Doing a quick physical examination can tell you and your vet a lot about how your dog is feeling.

How does a healthy dog behave?

An individual dog’s normal behavior can depend on breed, age, or past experiences. “You know what’s normal for your dog and should trust your instincts if something seems off,” explains Dr. Jo Myers, a veterinarian with Vetster. “Don’t assume subtle changes are due to the weather or some other change in your dog’s environment.” To help guide assessment and monitoring of your pet’s health, your vet will want to know if there are any changes to your dog’s:

  • Energy level
  • Eating and drinking habits
  • Bathroom habits

In addition, they will ask if you have noted any new symptoms, such as diarrhea, vomiting, coughing, sneezing, or lameness.

If your dog is normally playful and appears dull, or if your typically lazy dog is suddenly hyperactive, it can point to a change in health status. Your dog’s appetite suddenly increasing or decreasing or changes in their bathroom routine or appearance can also tell a vet a lot. A healthy dog’s urine is transparent, yellow, or amber in color. Stool is soft but holds its shape. When your dog goes out, ensure there is no added urgency, straining, or inability to hold their bladder or bowels.

How do you know if your dog is sick?

Changes in normal vitals, appearance, or behavior are often the first signs of illness or injury in dogs. A vet visit is probably needed if your dog’s:

  • Normal TPR values are significantly increased or decreased
  • Breathing is labored or panting for no apparent reason
  • Skin is tenting or gums dry
  • Gums or tongue change colors to pale, white, blue, gray, or bright red
  • Capillary refill is longer than two seconds
  • Physical appearance changes
  • Energy level or state of consciousness changes
  • Inability or added urgency to urinate or defecate
  • Urine or feces has blood in it
  • Gait changes or loss of ability to stand or walk
  • Head is shaking or tilting

Your vet will want to know right away if your dog has signs of pain, such as a reluctance to move, climb stairs, get in or out of a vehicle, unexplained panting at rest, trembling, or excessive licking or scratching at an area. In addition, notify a vet if your dog has an unhealthy appearance such as:

  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Discharge from eyes, nose, or ears
  • Scabbed, irritated, bruised, or sores present on the skin
  • Dull fur or abnormal hair loss
  • Swollen, red, painful ears or the presence of discharge or a foul odor

Foul breath, the appearance of vomiting or diarrhea, coughing and sneezing, or any other sudden changes in physical appearance or behavior can indicate a change in health status that needs veterinary attention. It’s best to see a vet sooner rather than later to help improve outcomes if there is an underlying condition present.

How do vets treat a sick dog?

If you suspect your dog is sick or injured, a vet will need to do a thorough physical examination and likely diagnostic testing as well. Diagnostic tests, such as bloodwork, X-rays, and urine or fecal tests, help identify the problem. An accurate diagnosis is crucial to determine what kind of treatment is likely to be most effective for your dog’s condition. Different medical conditions are treated in different ways. Your dog may be treated with:

  • At-home therapy
  • Topical, oral, or injectable medications
  • Procedures in the vet clinic, such as dental cleaning or physical therapy
  • Surgery or overnight nursing
  • Hospice and palliative care

When a diagnosis is uncertain, treating symptoms with medications or therapy according to veterinary recommendations can help provide relief until a diagnosis can be made. For some dogs, symptomatic treatment is all that will be needed. For others, more specific care may be required. Veterinarians work with the pet parent to inform them of the options for treatment and determine a plan based on the diagnosis and available resources. Routine wellness exams also help vets catch signs of illness early when symptoms are subtle at home.

It is always best to consult with a vet even if the expected treatment is simple and easily performed at home. Avoid trying to intervene on your own by using over the counter medications or making dietary changes without asking a vet. Taking steps to remedy concerns at home without guidance may actually make the situation worse, leading to complications and the need for more intensive medical care down the road.

What does my dog need to be healthy?

A dog’s best health begins at home with a balanced diet, clean water, and regular walks and exercise. Feeding your dog the proper amount of food for their age, size, and activity level will help keep them at a healthy weight and prevent becoming overweight or obese, leading to future health issues. Toys and enrichment will improve your dog’s quality of life and keep them entertained and their brain stimulated. Annual visits to the vet and regular grooming will keep your dog looking and feeling its best.

It’s also important for pet owners to keep up with regular vaccinations and parasite prevention. Follow your vet’s recommendations, which take into consideration your location and lifestyle. Regular dental care at home and at the vet will also keep your furry friend happy and healthy, and prevent other health issues. In addition, every dog needs undisturbed rest every day to recoup. If you have any questions or concerns about your dog’s overall health, you can contact an online vet for advice and discuss what their normal is and how you can keep them healthy.

FAQ - Dog health checklist: What is your dog's normal?

What are some common health conditions in dogs?

Obesity and dental disease are common health conditions in pet dogs. Controlling food portions, brushing your dog’s teeth, and following your vet’s recommendations at regular wellness exams can help prevent both of these common conditions and other illnesses. Internal and external parasites, skin problems, and ear infections are also common indicators that it’s time for a visit to a veterinary clinic. A physical examination of your dog’s body condition score, mouth, skin, fur, and ears can help identify these issues early.

How can I improve my dog’s health?

Work with a veterinarian to ensure your dog is at a healthy weight and receiving enough exercise. Brushing your dog’s teeth regularly at home can help prevent periodontal disease that can cause other health problems. Regular annual exams with a vet will help keep your dog healthy and on track.

How do I check my dog’s vital signs?

TPR stands for temperature, pulse, and respiration in veterinary medicine, and these vitals form the foundation of a physical examination. A dog’s temperature is taken rectally with a digital thermometer for the most accurate results. Only take a dog’s temperature if it is safe to do so. A pulse can be felt on the chest or inside the thigh. Respiration rates can be counted by watching or feeling for breath movement in the chest or sides. To calculate beats or breaths per minute, count for 15 seconds and multiply by four.