Vital Signs – Part 2

It's easy to check livestock vital signs to ensure your animals stay healthy. Here's how.

by Martok
Farmer check's goat pulse
Photo by Sue Weaver
Dad is checking my pulse. Obviously, I’m a healthy (and studly) buck.

Last week, we talked about livestock vital signs, why you should know how to take them and what kind of equipment you’ll need to do it. It’s easy! Here’s how.

Restrain the animal. Find someone to hold him still, tie him using his collar or halter and lead, and hold him against a wall or use a milking or grooming stand. If you have a head gate or squeeze chute for your cattle, use it. It’s easiest to place a small kid, lamb or piglet face down across your lap.

Pull the animal’s tail aside and insert the business end of a lubricated digital thermometer about 2 inches into an adult sheep, goat or pig’s rectum; 3 inches is better for a horse or cow. Don’t hold your goat’s tail—we don’t like it!

Hold the thermometer in place until it beeps.

When you’re finished, swab off the thermometer with an alcohol wipe and return it to its case. Store it at room temperature.

Heart Rate (Pulse)
The easiest way to check your animal’s heart rate is with a stethoscope. Simply place it in the correct spot, listen and count the number of beats in 15 seconds. Then multiply by four.

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If you don’t have a stethoscope, take your animal’s pulse by pressing two fingers against the artery just below and slightly to the inside of the edge of his jaw, about two-thirds of the way back from his muzzle; behind his left elbow; or against the large artery on the inside of either hind leg, near the groin. You’ll probably have to probe around to find the correct spot the first few times. With cows, the artery under the upper third of the tail is a good place, too. Count the number of pulses in 15 seconds, and multiply by four.

Watch your animal’s rib cage. Count the number of breaths he takes in 15 seconds and multiply by four.

Rumen Movements
If a sheep, goat or cow’s rumen isn’t moving normally, he is or soon will be sick. To check for rumen activity, place your fist in the hollow on the animal’s left side, just behind the rib cage. You should feel movement beneath your fist at least once or twice per minute.

Mucous Membranes
Although it isn’t considered a vital sign, you can also check your animal’s mucus membranes as part of his overall checkup. The thin skin that lines the inner surface of an animal’s body is called its mucous membrane. These membranes are good indicators of what’s happening inside the body because they’re so thin and transparent that you can see blood vessels through them. The easiest place to examine mucous membranes is inside the eyelid.

Check inner eyelid color in natural light. To open the eye, push the upper eyelid up with one thumb while the other thumb pulls the lower lid down. Look at the color inside the lower eyelid, keeping the eye open for a very short time.

Healthy animals have dark-pink to red mucous membranes. Pale-pink or white membranes indicate anemia, usually caused by a heavy internal parasite load. Yellow membranes mean the animal is jaundiced. Dirty-blue membranes are a symptom of an uncommon disease of sheep, cattle and goats called bluetongue.

Remember, learn to check your animal’s vital signs while he’s healthy so you know how to do it when he’s sick. We animals depend on you. Be prepared!

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