Your Cats Vital Signs

Temperature, pulse rate, and respiratory rate give clues to health status but are not definitive.


© kobby_dagan | Bigstock

Your cat doesn’t seem herself, but you’re not sure if it’s just a mood or passing illness or whether she needs to be taken to the veterinarian. One way to help you make a decision is to learn her vital signs, that is, her body temperature, pulse rate, and respiratory rate.

Temperature. Normal for a cat is anywhere from 100 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. A sick cat can have a body temperature that’s too high or too low. Take your pet’s temperature with a rectal thermometer made for cats. If your cat absolutely will not tolerate a thermometer in her tush, you can try gently placing it 1 to 2 centimeters (no more than 3/4 inch) into the ear canal. But readings are generally 1 to 1.5 degrees lower than the rectal temperature, and less reliable. “We rely on ear temps only for animals that will not tolerate rectal temps,” says Catnip editor-in-chief John Berg, DVM.

Pulse rate. While the normal pulse rate for a person is generally between 60 and 80 beats per minute, for a cat it’s much higher: 160 to 180 beats per minute. Assess your cat’s pulse by cupping your hand over her chest. Feel for the heartbeat, then count how many beats there are in 15 seconds and multiply by four.

Make sure your cat is calm and in a resting state while checking her pulse. If she is anxious or struggling, the measurement can easily be falsely elevated.

Respiratory rate. While the pulse rate is the rate at which the heart pumps out blood, the respiratory rate is the breathing rate — the rate at which the lungs take in air. Check it by literally watching the movement of your cat’s abdomen and chest wall while she is standing. (This also must be done while she is relaxed to avoid a false high reading.) Count the number of movements in 60 seconds. You can’t count for just 15 seconds and multiply by four because a cat’s respiratory rate is too slow for that. You’re looking for 20 to 30 breaths in a minute; a relaxed cat should be on the lower end of that range. A persistently elevated resting rate could be indicative of a disease of the heart, lungs, or chest cavity. Panting is not normal, either, even though it might be for a dog.

If any of these three numbers is off, you know you should take your cat in. But is your cat automatically in the clear if the numbers check out? Not necessarily. Tufts University emergency and critical care veterinarian Armelle de Laforcade, DVM, points out that it’s still possible for a cat to have a serious illness in the absence of a fever or an elevated or depressed heart or respiratory rate. For that reason, she says, it’s important to go with your instincts.

“You know your animal,” Dr. De Laforcade says. “If you feel like something’s wrong, you’re probably right,” no matter what the vital signs. If your pet has been lethargic or otherwise off her game, and certainly if she hasn’t been eating, drinking, or urinating, get her to the doctor.


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