The nuts and bolts of blood pressure measurement (Proceedings)


Blood pressure measurement is often not a routine part of small animal practice.

Why measure blood pressure

Blood pressure measurement is often not a routine part of small animal practice. This partially has to do with the equipment available to measure blood pressure as well as our patients (they tend not to hold still like we have to). This does not however change the fact that measuring blood pressure is

a. good medicine

b. a diagnostic test with considerable owner acceptance

c. a way to generate income with good medicine

Blood pressure can be determined through direct or indirect means. The direct method requires catheterization of a peripheral artery, generally a procedure reserved for monitoring of critical patients. Indirect means of blood pressure determination are more practical for day to day use. The indirect methods are non-invasive and cause little discomfort. The increasing availability of simple and relatively inexpensive means to indirectly measure blood pressure has lead to increased clinical application of this diagnostic tool.


Doppler ultrasonic blood pressure machines have a transmitting and receiving transducer. The ultrasound waves generated by the transducer are used to detect motion of the arterial wall or the blood cells themselves. If an object is moving a frequency change occurs (Doppler effect) with the ultrasound waves, making the reflected sound beam go from ultrasonic range to audible range. This reflected signal is amplified by the Doppler machine. An inflatable cuff with an aneroid pressure gauge is usually also needed. The cuff applies pressure to a peripheral artery and the pressure values are displayed by the gauge. The cuff is inflated to levels greater than systolic pressure. This occludes the artery and wall motion stops so that a signal is not received. The cuff is slowly deflated to a level below systolic pressure, which then means that the pulses are heard again. This method can be used in practice. There are a variety of downsides to this method. The method is operator dependent and widely varying numbers can be obtained by different people. The noise of the unit can contribute to stress in the animal as does shaving to improve probe contact. The set up time is relatively long making this method poorly adaptable to routine blood pressure measurement. Generally two skilled people are needed, one to restrain the pet, the other to obtain the reading. One of the most significant downsides to this technology is the inability to routinely and accurately determine diastolic blood pressure.


Oscillometric blood pressure devices measure oscillations within a cuff bladder. The pulse wave traveling through an artery causes these oscillations. Several commercial devices are available. The machines automatically inflate the cuff and deflate it slowly. Pressures above systolic pressure are initially used to occlude the artery and stop wall motion. Once deflated to systolic pressure, oscillations begin. Though relatively reliable in dogs, to date this technique has been very difficult to use in cats. Since there is no hunt for an artery as with Doppler, in many cases getting a reading is more rapid with oscillometric. Each individual reading takes longer in that the devices automatically inflate and then deflate slowly. This is actually an advantage, because this means that blood pressure is sampled over a longer period of time. As a result, a more accurate reflection of blood pressure can be determined.

High definition oscillometry (HDO)

HDO is also based on oscillometry, however that is similar to saying that a model T car is the same as a Lexus. HDO represents a generational leap in oscillometry. The processor is considerably more powerful allowing real time analysis of the oscillometric curve and exact control of the valves that determine inflation and deflation. This makes HDO accurate over a wider range of pressures (from 300 to 25 mmHg). It is also possible to visualize the oscillations as they are occurring using a computer. Seeing the curve allows the veterinarian to make important decisions as to whether the readings are accurate. With HDO it is possible to obtain blood pressure readings off the tail, even in awake ferrets. It is even possible to send the HDO unit home with the owner and most owners can obtain readings that are free from in hospital stress. This unit allows blood pressure measurement to truly become a routine and relatively easy diagnostic test in small animal patients.


It is important that the measurements be taken in a manner that minimizes apprehension or movement in a conscious patient.

Many authors described the influence of environmental stress but also the influence of an impatient examiner on blood pressure. Thus certain requirements have to be fulfilled to allow a relaxed and fast reading and reliable results:

  • Blood pressure measurements should be taken in a quiet room

  • Visitors or employees should not walk in and out of the room while a patient is measured

  • The animal should have a few minutes to get used to the environment and the overall situation

  • The animal should be handled in a calm and patient manner

  • The pet's owner should be present provided he or she is able to calm the animal

  • In each clinic, one or more individuals should be responsible for appointed to obtain blood pressure measurements to ensure consistent technique

  • Measurements should be taken in a relaxed position

  • The appropriate equipment should be used and limitations (Doppler, conventional oscillometry, Plethysmography) should be well known to allow a correct interpretation of the results

  • When using HDO technology, measurement is easiest on the base of the tail, but can also be obtained on the limbs

Allow the animal to adjust to the environment

  • Cats: take the cat out of its kennel. Let the cat decide on the preferred position and whether to sit on the examination table or being held in the arm of the pet owner.

  • Small dogs: The patient can be placed on the examination table or held by the owner

  • Large dogs: If possible, take the measurements with the patient positioned on the floor

Positioning of the patient

It is most important that the measurement site is at about the level of the base of the heart. That can be ensured when measuring the patient in

  • "down" position at the base of the tail or on the front limb below the elbow

  • lateral recumbancy, with the cuff being placed on the base of the tail or that front limb, which is on the ground

  • standing position, measuring on the base of the tail

In addition, it is vital to take readings in the same manner each time, this way readings are more comparable. This means that a protocol should be established and followed in all patients, when this protocol is deviated from it should be noted in the record. Deviations could be which limb was used, which cuff or machine was used, etc. The readings should be taken by someone that is calm and there should be adequate time allowed to carry the procedure out. Measurements should be taken in a quiet area with minimal distractions. Often if the owner is present, the animal will be more relaxed. Letting the patient acclimate to the room is also a good idea. Invasive examinations such as taking blood or rectal body temperature should wait until after blood pressure has been measured.

With Doppler it usually is ideal to shave the area where the transducer is to be placed and then use coupling gel to improve signal transmittance. This is not necessary with oscillometric devices. Blood pressure is subject to variations with each heart beat. This necessitates that repeated measurements be taken to obtain valid results. It is recommended that at least 5 blood pressure measurements be obtained over 5 minutes or more to determine average values.

Sources of error

Many factors can adversely affect blood pressure measurement. The autonomic nervous system can alter blood pressure, especially in response to stress. This is termed white coat hypertension and occurs commonly in humans as well. Movement in limbs will cause false values. Cuff width will influence results if it deviates too much from the ideal of 40% of limb circumference. A cuff that is too wide will result in lower readings and a cuff that is not wide enough will result in higher readings. Pronounced arrhythmias and slow heart rates can potentially also cause erroneous results. When using Doppler it is vital to have discipline when obtaining values. The tendency is to get 5 or 6 readings as fast as possible. This generally does not reflect true blood pressure. With Doppler you have to look at your watch and get measurements over 5 minutes. The later readings will generally be closer to true blood pressure since the animal will have had time to accommodate to the procedure.

Suggested reading

B Egner, A Carr, S Brown (eds). Essential Facts of Blood Pressure in Dogs and Cats. A Reference Guide. 2nd English Edition, BE VetVerlag, 2007.

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