Taking vital signs at home is a great skill that you can utilize to assure yourself that your cat is doing fine or needs to see a veterinarian for an exam. You will be taking your cats temperature, respiration rate, heart rate, and assessing pain. Do not assess pain at home if you are not comfortable as checking this vital sign can get you bit.
Vital Sign #1: Heart Rate
You can take the heart rate by taking a femoral pulse or by measuring the heart rate with a stethoscope. You take the pulse or heart rate for 15 seconds and multiply by 4 to get the beats per minute. The normal heart rate for a cat is between 140 to 220 beats per minute. A kitten’s heart rate may reach around 240 to 260 beats per minute. A relaxed cat or a sleeping cat will be on the lower end while a stressed cat or excited cat will be on the higher end. You may choose to do a pulse rate and a heart rate at the same time to compare the two.
If you want to take a pulse without a stethoscope… you would simply press your first two fingers against the inside of his upper hind leg where the femoral artery is located. Count for 15 seconds then multiply by four. You can feel or hear the cat’s heart with one hand over the cat’s left side, just behind the front leg. Count for 15 seconds then multiply by four as usual.
Putting a small cotton ball covered with a little alcohol in front of a cat or running a little water can prevent purring while you try to take an accurate heart rate.
Vital Sign #2: Respiration
Watch your cat breathe when he is standing on four legs and relaxed. Watch the abdomen and chest move while he is breathing in and out. Count the amount of movements that you can count in 60 seconds. A movement is counted as one complete rise and fall of the chest.
The average cat will take around 24 to 42 breaths per minute. You can count for 15 seconds and multiply by 4 if you cannot get your cat to stay still enough to count for 60 seconds. Purring is normal and is often symbolic of a happy cat, however, it can also be indicative of a stressed out or painful cat.
Panting, open mouth breathing, or noisy breathing can be indicative of a disease process or illness like upper respiratory infection or pneumonia. Open mouth breathing is a veterinary emergency.
Vital Sign #3: Temperature
The best thermometer for cats is one that has a six second read time and is easily lubricated. You can purchase a digital rectal thermometer or a manual thermometer. Lubricate a rectal thermometer then stick it into the anus until it beeps if it is digital or for 1 to 2 minutes if it is a manual thermometer.
The normal cat temperature is between 100 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature will increase slightly if the cat is stressed or overly excited. Temperatures of over 103 or under 99 should be reported to a veterinarian. Clean the thermometer with alcohol after every use and keep it in good condition by storing it in a case.
It is especially important that Persian cats and other cats with smushed in faces and long hair be kept cool in the hotter months of the year. Never have a cat kept within a hot vehicle as temperatures can rapidly climb and cause heat stroke. Cats that are outside should be provided water at all times and adequate shade.
Vital Sign #4: Pain and Hydration
Watch for any signs of pain, drooling, open mouth breathing, or any other abnormal behaviors. Any deviation from normal routine can be indicative of medical or behavioral issues. You can check the mucous membrane color of your cat and tongue color which should be pink unless the breed standard says differently. The skin turgor test can also be performed which is when you pull up on loose skin and time how long it takes to snap back into place which should be under 2 seconds.
Signs of pain should be noted and reported to your veterinarian. Vomiting, diarrhea, and other medically significant details should be recorded. You can view signs of pain that can be identified a cat such as hiding in my article about identifying pain in cats.