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Taking Your Pet's Temperature

By Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Care & Wellness, Pet Services

Hot Dog! Cool Cat! What’s your pet’s temperature? Contrary to popular belief, feeling your pet’s ears or nose won’t tell you if his temperature is abnormal. Taking your pet’s temperature requires a little know-how.

What’s normal?

taking_your_pets_tempratureNormal human body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius).  Normal body temperature for dogs and cats is 101 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit (38.3 to 39.2 degrees Celsius). Some people and some pets maintain a baseline temperature a little above or below the average, but if your pet’s temperature rises above 104 degrees F or falls below 99 degrees F, take him to a veterinarian.

What does abnormal look like?

Unfortunately, there is no easy checklist of symptoms that indicate high (hyperthemic) or low (hypothermic) body temperatures, but here are some general signs to look for:

  • Hypothermic pets may be lethargic and less alert. They may shiver or tremble.
  • Hyperthermic pets may also be lethargic. They often pant to dissipate excess body heat and their gums may become dark red.

Since these symptoms occur with lots of medical problems, you can’t determine if an animal is hypo/hyperthermic just by looking at him. You have to actually take his temperature.

The Low-Down on Thermometers

The only surefire way to determine if your pet has an abnormally high or low body temperature is to actually take his temperature with a thermometer. There are two popular types of thermometers: digital and rectal. Digital thermometers are inserted into the ear canal and rectal thermometers are inserted, as the name implies, into the rectum. However, dogs and cats often resist both options so taking a temperature can be challenging.

"The only surefire way to determine if your pet has
an abnormally high or low body temperature
is to actually take his temperature with a thermometer."

Old fashioned rectal thermometers contain mercury inside a glass cylinder. The mercury is shaken down into the thermometer bulb, expands when heated, and rises up the calibrated cylinder to indicate the temperature. Reading the thermometer can be tricky, but rolling it back and forth horizontally helps display the silver column of mercury. Glass thermometers are easy to break which requires a careful clean up since exposure to mercury is hazardous.

Digital thermometers have an easy-to-read numerical display in either Fahrenheit or Celsius. They calibrate themselves after being turned on…no shaking required. Digital thermometers are inserted into the ear canal and need to be close to the ear drum to get an accurate reading. Due to the many sizes and shapes of the canine and feline ear canal, digital temperatures aren’t always precise. Plus, the presence of hair, wax, and debris in the ear canal can affect accuracy.

The How-To of Temperature Taking                                   

Regardless of which thermometer you use, taking your pet’s temperature may be a two-person task. One person can hug the dog or cat to provide comfort and restraint simultaneously. Cats and small dogs can be held in the lap with one arm placed under the neck holding the head snug against your body. The other arm can be placed around the abdomen to keep the pet still. Large dogs can be held in a similar manner on the floor.

When using a digital thermometer, the pet may stand up. When a rectal thermometer is inserted, a standing pet will likely sit down on the thermometer. It’s best to lie the pet down on its side before inserting a rectal thermometer.

Rectal Technique: Shake down the thermometer. Lubricate the tip with petroleum jelly to ease insertion.  For small dogs and cats, the thermometer should be advanced slowly about an inch. For larger dogs, insert the thermometer about 2-3 inches into the rectum. Hang on to the end of the thermometer to steady it and make retraction easier. If you feel stool in the rectum, try to place thermometer around it rather than through fecal matter. Leave the thermometer in place two minutes. Remove the thermometer and wipe it clean with a tissue prior to reading. If the pet clamps down his anal sphincter, do not force the thermometer into the rectum to avoid injury and pain for the pet.

Digital Technique: Turn the thermometer on and allow it to calibrate. Many digital thermometers will beep when calibrated and beep again when ready to read. No lubrication is needed prior to inserting the thermometer into the ear canal. Insert the thermometer gently into the horizontal ear canal by holding it at a 90 degree angle with the pet’s head. If your pet resists, do not force the device into the ear canal. An infected ear is sore and inserting a thermometer will be painful. Besides, using an ear thermometer on a dog or cat with an ear infection will produce inaccurate readings.

If taking your pet’s temperature is difficult, don’t risk injury to him or to yourself. Allow trained professionals to accurately and safely take his temperature at a veterinary hospital.

What to Do About Temperature Highs and Lows

First of all, double check all abnormal (high or low) temperature readings. Falsely elevated temperatures occur when pets are over excited or agitated. Dogs and cats that resist restraint may have high temperatures that don’t really qualify as “fever”. Let the pet rest for 10 minutes, calm him down, and try again. If the pet’s temperature is too low, the thermometer may have been inserted inappropriately. An abnormally low temperature may result when the thermometer isn’t inserted far enough in the ear or when it is embedded in feces in the rectum.

"If the temperature remains high or low,
see your veterinarian"

After rechecking, if your pet’s temperature is still moderately elevated (102.5-103.5 degreed F), give him a small amount of water or ice chips. Apply cool damp cloths to his paws and place him in a ventilated area. If his temperature is too low, wrap him in warm towels or blankets. Hot water bottles may help, but avoid heating pads which can cause burns. If the temperature remains high or low, see your veterinarian. Remember that temperatures above 104 or below 99 degrees F are emergency situations.

Now that you understand the basics of your pet’s temperature, use this enhanced “degree “of knowledge to keep him safe and healthy.

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