If one of your horses or dogs seems to be unwell, it can be useful to examine it carefully so that you can give your vet a good description of the problem if and when you phone.
Doing health checks properly requires real skill, and it takes a lot of practice to get good at it. Familiarise yourself with what’s normal by practicing on very quiet healthy animals first. And beware of misinterpreting your findings. Only veterinarians have the experience and knowledge needed to do a full clinical examination and interpret the results accurately.
Be aware that most animals behave erratically when they are in pain, even those that are normally sweet and gentle – so take care.
To do a health check:
- Don’t rush into it. Stand back and just watch the animal carefully for a few minutes. You should look for anything abnormal in the way it behaves or moves.
- Check for symmetry on both sides of the animal, looking out for unusual swellings that could indicate the site of injury or disease.
- Check for excess salivation or difficulty eating or dropping food when eating. This can mean there is a problem with the teeth or tongue or throat.
- Feel for enlarged lymph nodes on the body especially in the throat area.
- Palpate over the body, the joints and bones, look under the tail for signs of diarrhoea or discharge. Notice any unusual smells, which could for example indicate infections (e.g. of gums or feet).
- Check for signs of lameness or uneven movement by asking the animal to move forward and circle to either side. If the gait is abnormal, examine the feet for injuries or foreign bodies.
- If you have a clinical thermometer, take the rectal body temperature, and if you can, also take the pulse rate and respiration rate, and note the colour of the membranes inside the mouth and nostrils. Bear in mind that the stress of handling, pain and physical activity can push pulse rates, respiration rates and body temperatures above normal.
The pulse rate, temperature and respiratory rate are known as the ‘cardinal signs’. They can be difficult to measure accurately but they are useful indicators of disease.
The body temperature can be measured using a mercury-filled thermometer or a digital thermometer.
Have someone hold the animal steady. Shake a mercury-filled thermometer down to below 35°C or set the digital thermometer to measure (according to its instructions). Lubricate the bulb with Vaseline. Standing to the side, lift the animal’s tail and hold it to one side. Gently insert the thermometer for a distance suited to the animal’s size (up to 2 cm for a dog, up to 2/3 of thermometer length in horses) and angle it a little so that it rests on the bowel wall. Hold the thermometer in place for the appropriate time then remove it and read the temperature.
If the temperature is unexpectedly low, repeat the process for a second reading,
Normal rectal temperature (range):
Horse 37.3 - 38 degrees C
Dog 38.6 – 40 degrees C
Note that temperatures may be towards the high end of the normal range in young animals.
An increased temperature (hyperthermia) may be the result of fever caused by infections, toxins and/or acute inflammation, but body temperature can also be increased by excessive exercise and/or a hot environment.
A decreased temperature (hypothermia) can be caused by a cold environment, especially in small or hungry animals. The temperature also drops below normal in animals that are close to death and in animals with a sluggish thyroid gland and slow metabolism.
Pulse and heart rate
The heart rate is best determined by placing a stethoscope on the left side of the chest just behind and above the elbow. You may not have a stethoscope, but in large quiet horses you may be able to hear the heart beat by placing your ear close against the chest wall. You will need good hearing as the heartbeat sound is soft and deep.
The pulse can be taken by:
feeling the femoral artery (inside the hind leg about a third of the way towards the back of the leg where the muscles meet the abdominal wall) (only in dogs and very placid horses),
or the facial artery where it runs over the edge of the jaw bone.
Count the number of beats in 15 seconds and multiply by 4 to give the heart rate for one minute.
It is important to use only a light finger touch and it certainly pays to practice on normal animals to learn the technique. The pulse is not easy to find, especially in an animal that may be suffering from shock.
Normal heart rate (beats per minute):
Horse 28 - 40
Dog 60 - 120
The pulse rate can be raised by fear or pain, exercise, fever, heat, anaemia.
It may be lowered by sleep or coma, by anaesthetics and certain poisons, and it is normally at the low end of the normal range in very fit animals.
When recording respiration rate, the animal must be relaxed and not anxious or sniffing the air or calling out, otherwise you will get a very weird result!
Watch the animal’s chest and count how many times it rises in 15 seconds, then multiply by 4 to calculate the rate for 1 minute. If it is not easy to see the chest rise and fall, it may help to hold your hand or a tissue in front of the animal’s nose to feel or see movement each time it breathes.
Note any abnormal breathing behaviour such as laboured breathing, gasping, abdominal effort, unusual posture or neck position (head extended), grunting, coughing, choking or sneezing. The cause could be an obstruction, pneumonia, pain, blood or air or pus in the chest cavity outside the lungs. Animals having trouble breathing are usually very anxious and distressed.
A dog with its nose blocked will breathe through its mouth (but remember, they pant when they are hot, to lose heat) but horses have a long soft palate at the back of their mouth so they cannot breathe through their mouth (horses can’t pant).
If the chest wall is hardly moving but the abdomen is, this is ‘abdominal breathing’ and it occurs with painful chest conditions such as broken ribs or pleurisy (inflammation of the lining of the chest cavity).
An animal with damaged alveoli in the lungs (emphysema) may make a double ‘heave’ (chest then abdomen) when it exhales.
Normal respiration rate in a calm horse at rest (breaths per minute):
Horse 8 - 16
Dog 10 - 30
The respiration rate can increase because of anxiety, pain, anger, exertion, shock, fever, heat stress, some drugs and poisons, or because of difficulty with breathing (e.g. pneumonia). A fall in the respiration rate can occur during sleep or because of a head injury or coma, or in some poisonings.
The mucous membranes lining the mouth, eyes and nose should be a healthy pale pink colour (salmon mousse!). Some animals have pigmented membranes in their mouths so you can look at the membrane lining inside their lower eyelid.
If the membranes are unusually pale the animal may be anaemic; if they are pale blue (cyanotic) then the blood is not fully oxygenated so there may be heart or lung problems. If they are dirty dark pink the animal may have toxaemia (toxic substances circulating in its blood). If they are yellowish there may be liver disease (jaundice).
Check the membranes of a normal animal for comparison if you have any doubt about the appearance of the mucous membranes of a sick animal. Get to know what normal looks like.
Check for dehydration. When there has been blood loss, fluid loss or lack of water intake the tissues become dehydrated. Pinch or ‘tent’ the loose skin on the neck or shoulder between your fingers and thumb for a few seconds. In normal animals the skin should then immediately return to normal (flat), whereas in dehydrated animals there may be a delay of some seconds and the longer the delay the worse the dehydration.
Pain is hard to define and measure in humans, and not surprisingly it is even more difficult in animals. We can assume that anything that would cause pain in humans will also cause pain in animals, but because there is no other way of communicating with them, we have to rely on their behaviour to tell us where the pain is and how bad it is.
Some indicators are useful (e.g. heart and respiration rates increase with pain) but they also rise with stress and fear, so they aren’t necessarily good indicators of pain or the degree of pain.
Some of the signs of pain are common to most species of animal:
- reluctance to eat
- dullness (or increased agitation and restlessness)
- standing apart from its mates
- groaning, especially if the injured part is moved or pressed
- horses may kick at the affected part or kick out at the handler
- dogs may try to lick the painful area
- unusual immobility or reluctance to move
- change in personality (usually for the worse!)
- increased muscle tone (tight-feeling, harder) around the affected area
- limping or uneven gait
- head pressing (e.g., against a post or building)
- increased heart rate, increased respiration rate
Additional species differences in behavioural signs of pain:
- kicking at belly
- looking round at flank
- teeth grinding
- rigid posture
- head held low
Note: In horses with colic, the normal gurgly abdominal (gut) sounds are absent.
- rigid abdomen
- back arched
- reluctant to move