Got a Fever?

Just like us, dogs and cats can spike fevers in response to infectious diseases, inflammatory disorders, and heatstroke. How can you tell if your pet’s temperature is on the rise? The notion that a hot, dry nose is a sure sign is simply an old wives’ tale. The only accurate way to know if you have a hot dog or a feverish feline on your hands is with use of a thermometer.

Digital thermometers made for humans work just fine for pets as long as they can be inserted rectally. While it would be so much easier to obtain a temperature measurement from the skin, ear, or armpit, such readings are inaccurate in dogs and cats. If you have an old-fashioned mercury-filled glass thermometer, I discourage you from using it. Should it break, the mercury exposure could be hazardous. Contact your state’s waste management program to determine how to safely discard this relic.

Ready to take your pet’s temperature? Begin by taking a deep breath (the calmer you are, the more relaxed your best buddy will be). Apply Vaseline or lubricating jelly to the tip of the thermometer and insert it within the rectum to a depth of ½ to one inch. Cats, in particular, can pucker tightly. Success depends on gentle clockwise/counterclockwise rotation in conjunction with steady forward pressure. Dogs have much less “pucker power” so insertion of the thermometer tends to be easier.

Be careful not to inadvertently yank your pet’s tail upwards while concentrating on thermometer placement, lest you cause discomfort. Whether working with a cat or dog, enlist an assistant to help reduce the wiggle factor. The helper should place one hand under the belly to prevent sitting down- a natural response to insertion of the thermometer. For kitties, grasping hold of the scruff (nape of the neck) works best. After the thermometer has been placed, a digital readout of numbers will occur followed by an auditory beep indicating success. If the reading is greater than 102 degrees Fahrenheit, your pet has a fever (normal range for dogs and cats is 100-102 degrees).

A whole host of different inflammatory and infectious diseases can cause a fever. So, it is reasonable to take your pet’s temperature whenever you observe a new symptom. Those most commonly associated with a fever are sluggish behavior and loss of appetite. Your pet may or may not feel warm to the touch.

If your Fluffy or Fido has a fever, the best thing to do is contact your family veterinary clinic or a local emergency hospital to determine the best course of action. Do not administer aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol). These medications can cause serious side effects in pets. Likewise, resist the temptation to douse your warm dog or cat in cold water or alcohol. Not only will this cause significant discomfort (think of how chilled you feel while in the throes of a fever), your pet’s internal thermostat will simply go into overdrive to restore the fever. The exception to this rule is if your pet is suffering from heatstroke. In this situation, cooling with water is strongly recommended.

Lastly, I’d like to address a pet peeve of mine (pun intended). If the thermometer reading is elevated, please do not say, “My dog (cat) has a temperature.” Of course, your pet has a temperature, as does every living, breathing animal! The more accurate description is, “My dog (cat) has a fever.” There! Thank you for indulging me!

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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3 Responses to “Got a Fever?”

  1. Jana Rade says:

    Aaah, splitting hairs, are you? :-) Though, of course, you’re right.

    We actually had pretty good results with digital ear thermometer. I found that if I took multiple readings from both ears and generally went with the highest reading, it was a correct one. Our strategy was to roughly monitor with that one and if the readings were suspicious, confirm with the rectal.

  2. Carolyn says:

    Thanks for the details about how to insert a thermometer. Esme and I are working through Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels (great positive program available online, see http://www.Sue-eh.ca). Level 2 Handling talks about conditioning your dog to accept grooming, pedicures and … thermometer insertion. Let’s say, we are working toward that ;) Maggie, my previous dog, was cooperative. Esme, not so much. We’re working on it!

  3. Cynthia King says:

    AHHH…my pet peeve as well It is good to see that others have a similar response to the “has a temperature” decree for the correct “has a fever (or elevated temperature)” decree for this type of symptom.