Emergencies in Cats

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

Medical emergencies can occur suddenly and without warning. It is important for all pet owners to have a basic understanding of common veterinary medical emergencies and basic first aid for their cats. For details on how to perform rescue breathing and feline CPR, see handout "First Aid for Cats".

Some emergencies are obvious, while others may initially escape your notice. While no one can be prepared for all emergencies, there are some simple steps you should follow and clinical signs to look for if your cat is ill or involved in an accident.

What should I do in an emergency?

1. Keep calm and assess the scene for any additional threats to you or your pet. This is important for everyone's safety.

2. Keep your cat warm (except in the cases of heatstroke), as quiet as possible, and keep movement to a minimum, especially if there is possible trauma, broken limbs, or any neurological symptoms.

3. Contact your veterinary hospital, inform them of the situation, and get first aid advice.

4. To safely move or transport an injured cat, use a suitable container such as a strong cardboard box or a cat carrier (remove the top for easy and safe access to the carrier; DO NOT push an injured cat through the small door or opening). Place a blanket or thick towel over the patient.

5. Get to the veterinary hospital as soon as possible.

Are there any restraint tips that might be useful?

The majority of animals you will encounter will be panicked, disoriented, or injured. The stress of an emergency can cause an otherwise friendly animal to act aggressively. Although most panicky animals respond to a calm, soothing voice, use caution when approaching or touching any injured animal.

"The stress of an emergency can cause an otherwise friendly animal to act aggressively."

Muzzles can be difficult to put onto a cat due to the shape of most cats' faces. There are specific muzzles designed for use in cats, but they are rarely handy when an emergency strikes. You can drape a towel over the cat's head to provide some measure of protection. You can wrap the body of a frightened or unmanageable cat in a blanket or towel. Do not constrict the trachea or airway. If possible, leave the head exposed unless the cat is very aggressive. Use caution if you are suspicious of a fractured bone or spinal injury. If you are suspicious of a spinal injury, lay the cat in a large box.

What are some common medical emergencies that might happen to my cat?

There are many medical emergencies that may happen to your cat, ranging from being struck by an automobile to acute internal problems such as an intestinal or urinary blockage. Below is a list of some of the most common and serious conditions that require immediate veterinary attention, including brief descriptions of common clinical signs and the first aid steps you should follow.

This list is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather to serve as a general guide. In all veterinary medical emergencies, it is important to contact your veterinarian as soon as possible for more specific assistance.

Anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock. This is a severe allergic reaction characterized by sudden collapse and severe breathing difficulties. The first clinical signs are often swelling around the face or muzzle, the appearance of bumps or hives on the skin, vomiting or diarrhea, and restlessness. These clinical signs can quickly progress to collapse and breathing difficulty. There are many causes for anaphylaxis that vary from insect stings and contact allergies to injection reactions. You should seek veterinary care immediately if you think your pet may be experiencing anaphylaxis.

Automobile injury. Make sure your cat has a clear airway, but do not put your hand in its mouth if your cat is conscious. Cover wounds with whatever suitable material is available. Handle your cat with care, supporting its body as much as possible. Carry it in a basket, box, or cage to the veterinary hospital. Even if your cat appears normal, it should be assessed by a veterinarian to ensure there are no internal injuries.

Bite and fight wounds. Clean the wounds immediately with warm water and cover the wounds to protect them from further contamination, then seek veterinary attention.

Bleeding (hemorrhage). If hemorrhage is severe on a limb, apply a tourniquet above the wound just tight enough to significantly reduce the flow of blood. Be sure to loosen it every twenty minutes. Apply a pad of cotton or other clean absorbent material over the wound or bleeding point. Bandage it firmly in place or simply apply direct pressure while you seek veterinary care.

Difficulty breathing. If your cat is having difficulty breathing, especially if it is open-mouth breathing or panting, you need to get to the veterinarian immediately. For information on rescue breathing or CPR, see handout "First Aid for Cats".

Burns. Unless you witness these injuries, they are not frequently apparent until later, when scabs or loss of hair or skin are noted. One of the more common burns suffered by cats is when they jump onto a hot stove. Cool the burned area with cool water by running water over the burn or covering it with wet towels. This also helps remove caustic substances (acid or alkaline) if these substances are the cause. With caustic substances, flush the area by holding it under running water for 15 minutes. If loss of skin occurs, cover the area with the cleanest material available. In all cases, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Convulsions or seizures. A seizure is a series of violent, uncontrolled spasms. Most seizures last for less than two minutes. If a seizure lasts more than five minutes or if several seizures occur in rapid succession, your cat requires immediate veterinary treatment to prevent permanent damage. During a seizure, DO NOT put your hand in its mouth. The cat WILL NOT swallow its tongue. Protect your cat from injuring itself and prevent it from falling. Once your cat has recovered from the seizure, provide reassurance by talking calmly or gently petting it. Your cat will often be disoriented for a short time after a seizure. Your cat will require veterinary attention to determine the cause of the seizures, but as long as the seizure was not prolonged, you can book the appointment at your earliest convenience.

Persistent diarrhea and/or vomiting. Repeated or continuous vomiting or diarrhea, with or without blood, could be a sign of poisoning, an intestinal obstruction, or acute gastrointestinal infection. Dehydration is a major concern in cats. Contact your veterinarian if you observe blood in the stool, if the vomiting or diarrhea persists beyond six to twelve hours or if your pet becomes less responsive or weak. Do not force your cat to eat or drink, as you may inadvertently worsen the condition. NEVER administer a human medication to your cat unless specifically advised to do so by your veterinarian.

Eye injury. Many eye injuries can cause blindness or even loss of the eye if left untreated. If the cornea is scratched or punctured, it will be very painful. Prevent your cat from scratching at its eye causing further damage. Sudden blindness or vision loss (your cat will start bumping into things or have trouble jumping up onto the furniture, and you will probably notice that the pupils are widely dilated) may be a symptom of glaucoma or high blood pressure. If your cat develops these signs, get immediate veterinary treatment.

Heatstroke. The signs of heatstroke are excessive panting, lethargy, and distress; unconsciousness and death can quickly follow. Most cases of heatstroke occur when a cat is left in its carrier in an unventilated car. For immediate treatment, cool your cat's body temperature by rinsing it with cool water. When you are ready to transport your cat to the veterinary hospital, wrap it in a cool, wet towel. Animals that have been exposed to heat or smoke from a fire should be offered water as soon as the situation is stable.

Other injuries. Some injuries constitute medical emergencies, depending on the type and extent of wounds. If you suspect your cat has a broken bone, put it into a carrier or a box to support the affected area. Any penetrating wound to the chest or abdomen and virtually any injury involving the eye should be regarded as a medical emergency. Injuries to the head or those causing difficulty breathing should also be treated as immediate emergencies.

Poisoning. Common causes of poisoning in a cat include eating mice that have been killed by poison, eating slug or snail bait, eating certain plants such as lilies, or drinking ethylene glycol (antifreeze). The typical symptoms of poisoning are vomiting, diarrhea, salivation, skin irritation from caustic irritants, collapse, or seizures. If a product label is available, see if there are first aid instructions, such as whether or not to induce vomiting. DO NOT INDUCE VOMITING if your cat has ingested foreign objects (plastic wrapping, paper, string, or wool for example). If corrosive or toxic material is on the skin, rinse for fifteen minutes. Bring a sample of the suspected poison with its container to the veterinary hospital. If you suspect poisoning, contact your veterinarian immediately.

"DO NOT INDUCE VOMITING if your cat has ingested foreign object"

Unconsciousness or collapse. This may occur with or without seizure activity. It often occurs without warning, such as in the case of sudden heart failure or following a blow to the head. Collapse should always be treated as a medical emergency.

Urinary Blockage. Commonly seen in male cats, a blockage in the penis or urethra can cause acute kidney failure. If your cat is frequently going to the litter box and not producing urine or only producing small drops, seek veterinary attention immediately. This condition can result in extreme suffering and death if not addressed right away.

What is shock?

Shock has many definitions. It is a complex systemic or whole-body reaction to a number of situations. These include severe trauma, hemorrhage or sudden blood loss, heart failure, and other causes of decreased circulation (e.g., severe and sudden allergic reaction or heat stroke). A life-threatening fall in blood pressure is a dangerous part of shock. If not treated quickly and effectively, systemic shock may cause irreversible injury to body cells and can be fatal.

"Systemic shock may cause irreversible injury to body cells and can be fatal."

Signs of shock include rapid breathing that may be noisy, rapid heart rate with a weak pulse, pale or white mucous membranes (gums, lips, under eyelids), severe depression (listlessness), and cool extremities (limbs and ears). The cat may vomit.

Is there anything else I should know about emergencies in cats?

Emergencies arise unexpectedly and it is important to stay calm. After realizing what has occurred, it is important to contact your veterinarian for recommendations in order to provide the best chance for a successful outcome. Once you have received initial instructions, it is important to transport your cat to your veterinarian for a complete examination as soon as possible.

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