Cats can’t communicate how they’re feeling directly, which means that pet owners have to look for signs of illness. As well as identifying symptoms like lethargy or gastrointestinal problems, one way that we can monitor the general health of a cat is to check its vital signs.
Checking vital signs should never replace regular vet visits, but regular checks of temperature, respiratory rate, and heart rate, can help ascertain your cat’s general well-being and may be used as a sign of whether your cat needs to visit the vet.
What Are the Three Vital Signs for Animals?
The three vital signs are:
There are other things to consider when determining whether a cat might be ill, but these are the most important. All can be checked at home and all you really need is a decent thermometer and a clock or watch.
How to Check Your Cat’s Vital Signs at Home
1. Keep Them Calm
Cats good at masking illness, which is an instinct that would help protect them from predators and challengers in the wild. Cats also an get stressed if we start poking, prodding, and grasping at them. Therefore, it is important to try and keep the cat as calm as possible. Make slow movements, don’t surprise your cat, and avoid giving food treats to keep them calm because this also affects vital signs.
2. Count Breaths
Respiratory rate is the speed at which the cat is breathing. Cats should breathe every couple of seconds, or between 20 and 30 times a minute. You can either watch your cat breathing by looking at their chest or put your hand gently on their side and count the number of breaths they take. If you can’t convince your cat to stay still for a whole minute while you do this, count the number of breaths in 15 seconds and multiply it by four. That is the standard way of doing it in the veterinary world.
If your cat’s resting respiratory rate is higher than 30 breaths per second, and there isn’t an obvious reason, this could be a sign of possible illness and should be investigated by a vet. Reasons that might cause an increased respiratory rate include strenuous exercise or if you made them jump when approaching.
Panting, open-mouth breathing or rapid breathing, is always a cause of concern in cats. Cats have different cooling mechanisms than dogs, and they generally don’t pant to cool down. Another important point to consider is that cats are normally silent breathers. You should not hear any noises from the nose or chest. Therefore, if you notice any abnormal movements, rate or noise, film a quick video and speak to your vet immediately.
3. Check Heart Rate
The heart rate (or pulse) is the number of times the heart beats or palpates in a minute. When your cat is resting, preferably sleeping, place your hand on their chest, just behind their elbow, and try to feel their heartbeat on the left side of their chest.
You should be able to identify each beat. Count the number of beats in 15 seconds and multiply this by four to get the number of beats per minute. This is not always easy, considering how fast your cat’s heart beats!
Other way of checking your cat’s heart rate is to check it though their pulse. Most of us have tried taking our own pulse, and the process is similar in a cat. Knowing where to find the pulse can be tricky, even for trained people. Hold firmly, but not too tightly, just inside the top of your cat’s hind leg, near their groin. You may need to move your fingers around a little to find the pulse.
You should apply gentle pressure with your fingertips on the area, which means that it is possible to take your cat’s pulse while they are sitting on your lap relaxing. In certain heart conditions, the pulse and heart rate don’t match, which is why your vet normally checks both at the same time.
A cat’s heart rate should be between 160 and 220 beats per minute 1, which means about three beats per second. Count the number of beats in 15 seconds and multiply this by four. If your cat is relaxed, it should be at the lower end of the scale, but if it is struggling or disturbed by what you’re doing, it could be at the higher end.
When cats are at home, they tend to have considerably lower heart rates than when they are at the vets. According to a 2005 study 2, 132 bpm is the average heart rate for cats at home.
If the rate is lower or higher than the advised range, it may be a sign of illness. If there is any irregularity in the heart rate, this can also be a sign that your cat needs to be seen by a vet.
Heart rates under 120 bpm are considered low (bradycardia), and lower than 100 bpm 3 are associated with lethargy and fainting. If you are concerned that your cat’s heart rate is too low, take several readings and note them down. If in doubt, take your cat to see your vet as soon as possible.
4. Measure Temperature
Measuring the temperature of a cat is easy, in theory, but can be very difficult in practice. Vets will usually use a rectal thermometer, but if you are trying to check your cat’s vital signs at home, and especially if you are doing it alone, this is unlikely to be your best option.
At home, the easiest way to take a cat’s temperature (also done in some clinics) is using a reliable digital thermometer that you insert into your cat’s ear 4. You can get human ear thermometers or the ones that are designed specifically for use on cats and other pets and it should be easier to try sticking the end of the thermometer in the ear than in the rectum.
If you are using a rectal thermometer, you should consider this a two-person job. Even though this method has its limitations, so far rectal thermography remains the gold standard for cats.
A cat’s temperature should be between 100.4° and 102.5° Fahrenheit. If the temperature is significantly higher or lower than this, you should speak to a vet. They will ask for any other signs of illness and use the information you provide to determine the next best step.
How Often Should I Check My Cat’s Vital Signs?
Assuming that your cat visits the vet for a regular check-up, every year, it is a good idea to check vital signs every few months. If your cat is happy to undergo the process, you can even do it every month. This way, you can determine any fluctuations in respiratory rate or other vital signs that, while they might not look worrying taken in isolation, could be a sign of illness.
Is 40 Breaths Per Minute Normal for a Cat?
Typically, a cat will have a resting respiratory rate of around 20 breaths per minute. This may rise to around 30 breaths per minute if they have been exercising or are stressed. If the respiratory rate at rest reaches 40 beats per minute, consider any other signs and contact your vet to see what might be wrong.
Why Is My Cat’s Temperature So High?
First of all, it is important to remember that a cat’s temperature should be about 100.4°F, which is higher than the normal temperature for humans. So, while a temperature of 102°F might seem high, it is actually a healthy feline temperature. If your cat’s temperature is much higher than this, however, it could be a sign of illness.
If your cat’s temperature rises above 104°F, this is a clear indication that your cat is unwell, and you should take them to your veterinarian immediately. On the other hand, if your cat’s temperature is below 99°F you should seek veterinary advice.
Respiratory infections like cat flu can cause a rise in body temperature, but so can other infections like those from wounds or cat bite abscesses.
Cats are very good at masking illness. In the wild, if a cat looks weak it is easy prey to predators and may be challenged by other cats, so masking any weakness is a survival mechanism. For domestic cats, it can be a problem because it means that we can’t always tell if the family cat is feeling under the weather. As well as regular vet checkups, owners can check their cat’s vital signs to help determine whether they might be ill or are more susceptible to illness.
The main vital signs, all of which can be checked at home, are heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature. These should be between 160 and 220 beats per second, 20 to 30 breaths per second, and 100.4° and 102.5° F, respectively.
Featured Image Credit: Zhuravlev Andrey, Shutterstock