DIY Pet Physical Exam - How to Check Breathing & Skin · The Wildest

Skip to main content

DIY Pet Physical Exam: How to Check Your Dog’s Breathing & Skin

Veterinarian Dr Shea Cox on how to get comfortable checking your dog’s breathing, respiratory rate and skin hydration

by Dr. Shea Cox, DVM, CVPP, CHPV
Updated 16 August 2022
Dog sitting next to owner
Eva / Adobe Stock

In this series, we’re helping pet parents gain confidence in conducting basic health checks on their dogs. This instalment will show you how to examine your dog’s chest, known as the thorax, at home. 

To properly examine your dog’s thorax, you’ll learn how to: check their neck, assess their chest, learn how to measure a dog’s respiratory rate and perform a skin turgor test, which determines how hydrated your pup is. In the next part of our series, we will continue with the dog’s abdomen. At the completion of this series of articles, you should feel totally prepared to perform a screening exam on your dog.

How to check your dog’s respiratory rate

When your dog is sleeping, or resting quietly, you can assess their respiratory rate. First, watch your dogs chest as it rises and falls to familiarise yourself with the movement. One breath is counted ​when the dog has inhaled and exhaled once. Next, set a timer for 30 seconds. Count the number of times the dog takes a breath (when the chest rises and falls). Once you have your initial results, multiply the number of breaths by two to get the dogs respiratory rate (bpm). A normal dog respiratory rate is between 15–60 bpm.

How to assess your dog’s breathing

What is normal breathing for a dog?

With a healthy dog, you should not be able to hear them breathe at all (except when panting). The act of breathing is, for the most part, performed by the chest wall; it should move in and out, easily and rhythmically, to and fro during respiration in an effortless way; each breath should look the same as the last.

The normal resting respiration rate for dogs is 15–30 breaths per minute (a sleeping or relaxed dog). If your dog is being active, expect a higher respiratory rate between 15–60 breaths; and just like with heart rates, smaller dogs will tend to have a faster resting respiratory rate than larger dogs.

What is abnormal breathing for a dog?

On the opposite side of the spectrum, if your dog is experiencing abnormal respiration, you may notice laboured breathing, wheezing, unusual noises or coughs. Here are some signs of respiratory distress.

  • Any unusual noise heard while the dog is breathing could indicate a problem, especially if the noise is new for your pup.

  • A change in your dog’s bark is a big concern. It can indicate disease processes such as laryngeal paralysis (a common condition in our older large breed dogs such as Labs) or the development of a tumour in the airway.

  • Wheezing during expiration can indicate conditions such as asthma or allergic airway disease.

  • High-pitched noises on inspiration indicate an obstruction of the upper airway or choking and immediate medical attention is needed.

  • Sudden or frequent sneezing can indicate foreign objects in the nasal passages, such as grass seeds.

  • If there is noticeable effort by your dog to move the chest wall, or if the belly is actively involved in the process of inhaling and exhaling: these are signs of respiratory distress and can be caused by many conditions.

  • The onset of coughing in an older dog: coughing is one of the more common signs of the development of heart failure or lung cancer in dogs; X-rays of the chest will be needed to further evaluate if you notice this symptom.

  • If your dog stands with elbows held out further than normal, its neck is extended out further than normal or, is unable to rest or lie down: these are all outward signs that your dog is having difficulty breathing and getting enough oxygen into its body.

  • An increased resting respiratory rate can be a sign that a previously diagnosed disease is progressing; for example: if your dog with heart disease has a normal resting rate of 15 breaths a minute, and then the resting rate goes up to 30 while asleep, then doubled rate means it’s time to see the vet.

How to inspect a dog’s skin

The skin is one of a dog’s major organs and it is an important indicator of overall health. The first things to do are to simply look at, smell and feel your dog’s skin and coat.

What is healthy dog skin like?

  • shiny and smooth coat (except for wire-haired breeds)

  • soft and unbroken skin

  • minimal odour

What is unhealthy dog skin like?

A healthy dog’s fur should appear smooth and shiny, with minimal odour, while their skin should be soft and clear without flakes, bumps or signs of grease. Here are some signs that your dog may have problems with their skin.

  • Sparse or patchy coat: this can indicate underlying endocrine diseases such as Cushing’s disease.

  • Lumps and bumps, which can be normal or abnormal: many older dogs can develop accumulations of fatty tissue known as lipomas; in order to differentiate these benign masses from cancerous ones, an aspirate can be performed (collection of cells with a small needle); this simple and quick procedure can help your veterinarian determine the nature of the lump and help you decide if further tests or treatment are needed.

  • Open sores or wounds or any ulcerated area of skin.

  • Foul or rancid odour: this can indicate a bacterial or yeast infection in the skin.

How to perform skin turgor test

The skin turgor test is one of the most helpful ways to determine whether your dog is well hydrated; although this test can be affected by several factors other than hydration status, such as weight loss, age and general skin condition, it can help you to make a rough determination of the hydration status. To perform this test, pull up the skin over the neck or back into a ‘tent shape and release it quickly: it should return quickly to its resting position. If the skin returns slowly to position, or if it remains slightly tented, then this is a good indication that your pet is dehydrated.

Done examining your dog’s thorax? Keep practicing your other physical exam skills. Not only does your pet get a good ‘once over from you, they get even more hands-on attention in the process. Be sure to read the last part of the series which will include the abdomen and musculoskeletal system of a dog.

Consult your vet if you’re concerned about any of these dog physical exam findings – early recognition can save your dog’s life.

Dr. Shea Cox, DVM, CVPP, CHPV

Dr. Shea Cox is the founder of BluePearl Pet Hospice and is a global leader in animal hospice and palliative care. With a focus on technology, innovation and education, her efforts are changing the end-of-life landscape in veterinary medicine.