Taking Vital Signs and Histories: A Vet Tech’s Guide

Published on July 11, 2019 by arothstein

Choosing a career as a vet tech is ideal for the person who loves animals, wants to care for them and learn about the advances in veterinary medicine. A vet tech may work exclusively at a veterinary practice or specialize in a variety of careers that allow them to work with exotic animals, in zoos, and wildlife sanctuaries.

A career as a vet tech offers the opportunity to heal animals and make a positive impact on the animals and people they interact with. Working as a vet tech opens up a world of continuing education choices to specialize in an array of fascinating fields. In order to care for animals and help them feel and stay well, vet techs must take accurate vital signs and histories for their clients.

Clinical Practice with a sub-specialty in canine/feline care or exotic animal care is an excellent option for people who love dogs and cats.

Emergency and Critical Care vet techs may work in 24-hour emergency clinics caring for animals suffering from trauma. Three years of emergency care are required for certification.

Veterinary Surgery Vet Techs assist with surgical procedures, prep animals for surgery, and care for them during recovery.

Vet Techs who specialize in Zoology travel between zoos and provide assistance to zoo veterinarians. Five years of experience caring for zoo animals is required to become certified.

The Exam Room Duties of a Vet Tech

One of the duties of a vet tech is to maintain an accurate history of your pet’s vital signs. Each time you go into an exam room for a wellness check-up or follow up exam after an illness or injury, the vet tech will take your pet’s vital signs.

The vital signs that are recorded on your pet’s chart at every appointment are:

The vet tech is responsible for recording and monitoring a pet’s vital signs with each visit.

Start the Exam off Right

A vet tech will usually record the patient’s temperature before proceeding to the exam room. This prevents the pet from getting too stressed and having the heart rate, pulse, and respiratory rate increased due to stress. Having additional stress can make it difficult for the vet tech to take the pet’s vital signs.

The vet tech should be calm and speak to the pet in a soothing voice while taking the vital signs and recording their history. The vet tech must understand what the average readings are for various species.

Taking a Pet’s Weight Accurately

A veterinary practice will incorporate several different scales, depending on the size, weight, and species of the patient. An accurate history of the patient’s weight will help the veterinarian to determine if a significant change in weight could indicate an illness or if a dietary change may be necessary.

An accurate history of the patient’s weight and vital signs allows the veterinarian to decide on the proper dosages and medications that should be administered. Dogs are usually weighed on a floor-type scale outside the exam room. Some veterinary practices have a small scale on the exam table for cats and small animals like rabbits.

What If An Animal Doesn’t Like Scales?

An alternative to the exam room scale is to weight the cat or other small pet inside their crate on the floor scale. Once the pet is in the exam room with the veterinarian, the vet tech may take the empty crate and weigh it on the floor scale again. The difference when the pet is inside the carrier and the weight of the carrier when it’s empty, help the vet tech to determine the pet’s accurate weight. Taking the weight of a small pet in this manner minimizes the risk of it becoming stressed and possibly getting out of the crate in the reception area.

Taking a Pet’s Temperature

Although some veterinarians use glass thermometers to record the patient’s temperature on their medical history, a lot of vets use digital thermometers because the digital variety records the temperature faster.

How to Determine an Animal’s Respiratory Rate

The respiratory rate determines the number of times that a pet breathes within one minute. One inhale and exhale are counted as one breath. There are two ways to record the respiratory rate of a dog, cat, or other small species.  The vet tech should watch the rise and fall of the sides of the pet as the lungs inflate and deflate. The number of times the pet breathes in 60 seconds as counted as respirations per minute. Another way to record the respiration rate as to count for 30 seconds and multiply by two.

The normal throbbing of the arteries when the heart is pumping blood throughout the body is the heart or pulse rate. When determining the pulse rate, it’s advisable for the vet tech to get on the floor to measure the heart rate rather than putting the pet on the exam table which could cause stress and inaccurate reading.

Different Symptoms and What They May Mean

When a pet isn’t feeling well, a vet tech may notice behavioral or physical changes. The vet tech should always be aware of a pet’s behavior. Cats especially don’t always exhibit signs of illness like dogs do. Here are some common symptoms of illness in cats, dogs, and other pets that may be a signal that something isn’t quite right.


A cough is a common canine problem but isn’t quite as common in felines. A pet will cough when the airway, lungs, or throat are irritated. When the vet tech is taking the pet’s medical history, it’s necessary to know whether the pet is breathing normally in between coughing spells.

How Do You Know When a Cough is Troubling?

A vet tech will want to know if the cough is more frequent at certain times and if the pet spends a lot of time outdoors, which could indicate seasonal allergies. However, there could be more severe causes for the cough, so it’s essential to have a coughing pet examined. Irritation of the trachea can be the result when a dog is tugging on their leash or gets excited. If a pet coughs after eating, it could be an indication of disease in the esophagus or larynx.

If a pet has a cough that sounds moist, it could be an indication of fluid in the airway or lungs, and an appointment with a veterinarian should be scheduled before it gets worse.

Age Makes a Difference

The breed of pet and their age may be an indicator of why it is coughing. Young animals, especially puppies or kittens, may develop a cough because of a bacterial or viral infection. Cats sometimes develop asthma and may wheeze or cough. Small dogs may develop leaky heart valves as they age and develop a cough.

Kennel Cough

Kennel cough is a condition that develops as a result of exposure to bacteria or viruses in a veterinary kennel or boarding facility. The problem usually runs its course, but a veterinarian may prescribe a cough suppressant so the pet and the rest of the family can rest at night.


Pets may sneeze for a variety of reasons including:

If a pet is sneezing a lot, it could be a sign of distemper if the dog hasn’t been vaccinated, or a result of kennel cough. A cat may be sneezing because of an upper respiratory infection like feline herpes virus. If the sneezing repeatedly continues for a day or two, make an appointment with a vet to be on the safe side.

Vomiting or Diarrhea

Dogs, cats, and other pets will vomit or have occasional diarrhea. A puppy that’s playing outside may eat leaves or something from the ground that upsets their stomach and usually isn’t cause for alarm.

However, if a cat or dog is lethargic, not acting like themselves, and vomits or has diarrhea several times in one day, it’s time to call a veterinarian. If a pet vomits or has diarrhea that’s bloody, it could signal that they’ve swallowed a foreign object or may have a gastric ulcer.

Diarrhea or vomiting may also be an indication of a gastrointestinal infection or parasite infestation. In either case, the pet must be seen by a veterinarian immediately before the condition worsens.

Is Your Pet Drinking Normal Amounts of Water or More Than Usual?

If a pet is drinking more water than usual, the owner is filling up the water bowl more frequently, or if the pet is urinating in the house because it can’t make it outside in time, a pet owner should contact their veterinarian and schedule an appointment as soon as possible.

Excessive thirst in pets could be a sign that he’s going into kidney failure or may have diabetes. A vet tech can perform diagnostic tests to determine if a life-threatening disease may be the cause of excessive thirst.

Is Your Pet Eating Normally?

Dogs may sometimes eat less or not at all when the weather is hot. However, if a dog is exhibiting unusual eating habits like trying to raid the garbage or pantry, or not eating anything at all, something isn’t quite right, and the dog should go to the veterinarian. The same rule applies to cats and other pets.

Different Diets and Treats for Different Ages of Pet

When choosing the most nutritious diet for a pet, consider feeding age-appropriate food. Considerations for the most appropriate food should be the pet’s overall body condition, if the pet has any medical problems, the breed, and age.

Life Stages and Food Choices

Pet food that’s recommended for all life stages isn’t the right choice. Cats and dogs have different nutritional needs at different life stages. Puppies and kittens are growing rapidly and need foods that provide them with more calories and energy than adult foods. To break it down further, large breed dogs have different nutritional requirements than small breeds and are subject to medical conditions that aren’t usually associated with small breeds, so breed-specific foods are an excellent choice.

The best treats for pets are those that are natural and don’t contain any artificial ingredients. When offer an adult dog or cat treats, limit the number to one or two a day. A lot of pet treats are high in calories and a pet could gain too much weight from frequent snacks.

Has Your Pet Traveled in The Last 30 Days?

If a pet has traveled during the last 30 days, the pet may have been exposed to heartworm which can affect dogs and cats, or several infections caused by fungus.

Is Your Pet Taking Any Medications?

When the vet tech is taking the pet’s medical history, the pet owner will be asked if the pet is currently taking any medications. The veterinarian must know what medications a pet is taking in case additional meds must be prescribed to avoid any drug interaction.

Are There Other Pets in The Home?

If your pet has symptoms of an infection or contagious disease, your veterinarian will want to know if there are other pets in the home that the disease could be spread to. It may be necessary to treat all your pets to contain an infection.

How Is His/Her Activity/Energy Level? Has That Changed?

If a cat or dog is usually very lively and has a lot of energy but suddenly is quiet or lethargic, it could be a sign that he’s not feeling well. The more the veterinarian knows about a pet’s activity and energy level, the easier it may be to diagnose what’s wrong.

What Are the Pet Owner’s Main Concerns About Their Pet?

Pet parents have concerns about their pets like they do their children. It’s vital for the vet tech to listen and record the information in the medical history, and the veterinarian can discuss any concerns with the client.

Want to Learn More?

Did learning about taking a good history in the exam room interest you? Ready to start a program to become a veterinary technician? With an associate degree in veterinary technology, you’ll gain the knowledge and skills you need to start an entry-level career as a veterinary technician. Broadview University has been part of the community for more than 40 years, so we’ve developed connections that can help move your career forward. After completing our accredited degree program, you’ll be eligible to sit for the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE). Passing the VTNE allows you to become a Certified Veterinary Technician (CVT), a designation that will give you a competitive advantage when you enter the job market.

Contact us today to learn more about becoming a veterinary technician and working in veterinary technology.

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