First Aid for Cats - Shock, Rescue Breathing, and CPR

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

Medical emergencies occur suddenly and without warning. It is important for all cat owners to have a basic understanding of common veterinary medical emergencies and basic first aid for their pets. While no one can be prepared for all emergencies, there are some simple guidelines you should follow and things to look for if your cat seems ill or is involved in an accident. For a general overview of what constitutes an emergency and how to handle common crisis situations, see the handout “Emergencies in Cats.

What is first aid?

First aid is the initial treatment given in a medical emergency. Its purpose is to:

  • preserve life
  • reduce pain and discomfort
  • minimize any risk of permanent disability or disfigurement

In an emergency, what should I do first?

  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 heat stroke), 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 to inform them of the situation and get specific 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?

Most 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.

Muzzles can be difficult to put on 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 also 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 your 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 your cat in a large box.

What is shock?

Shock has many definitions. It is a complex systemic (whole-body) reaction to several situations, including severe trauma, hemorrhage or sudden blood loss, heart failure, and other causes of decreased circulation (e.g., severe and sudden allergic reaction and 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 it can be fatal.

What are the signs of shock?

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

What should I do if my cat is showing signs of shock?

Keep your cat as quiet as possible and try to conserve heat by covering it with blankets, towels, or even newspapers. Follow the A, B, and Cs of first aid:

A          Airway

B         Breathing

C         Cardiac function

Airway. Anything that obstructs the airway prevents oxygen from entering the lungs. Do your best to clear the mouth and throat of any obstruction, such as vomit, saliva, or other foreign material. Be careful - your cat may bite you in panic.

Breathing. If your cat is unconscious and does not appear to be breathing, try gently pumping the chest with the palm of your hand, at the same time feeling just behind the elbow to detect a heartbeat or pulse. If this is unsuccessful, give your cat rescue breathing (see below). Be careful - injured pets may bite you out of fear. If you are unsure about the health or vaccination status of the injured pet, avoid contact with bodily fluids and blood.

Cardiac function. If you are unable to detect a heartbeat or pulse, or if it feels weak and slow, try pressing on the chest with your palm and elevating the lower half of the body to promote blood flow to the brain. Follow the CPR steps below.

How do I perform rescue breathing for my cat?

If your cat is unresponsive, ensure that there is an open airway and then:

  1. Carefully pull the tongue out of the mouth.
  2. Extend the head and neck so that they are in a straight line. DO NOT overextend the neck in animals that have obvious head and neck trauma.
  3. Carefully clear the mouth of any debris that may be obstructing breathing.
  4. Place your hand over your cat's muzzle while holding the mouth shut and extend the neck. For cats, you can sometimes improvise with a Styrofoam cup or other similarly shaped object by poking a large hole in the bottom for you to breathe through and putting the opening over your cat's face. Ensure a relatively tight seal around the muzzle.
  5. Blowing into the nostrils, give two to three breaths and watch for a rise in the chest. For rescue breathing, provide 10 breaths per minute. If you do not see a rise in the chest, reposition the neck or search for airway obstruction.
  6. If your cat fails to breathe on its own, you may attempt an acupressure maneuver. Press firmly with your fingernail or another hard dull object in the space between the nostrils and the upper lip (nasal philtrum). Do this for 10-30 seconds.

What if my cat requires CPR?

If there are still no obvious signs of life after you have established an airway and begun rescue breathing, you should attempt chest compressions:

  1. Make sure there is no major bleeding. If there is bleeding, have an assistant manage the bleeding while you perform CPR. 
  2. If possible, lay your cat on its right side.
  3. Feel for a heartbeat or femoral pulse. The femoral pulse is located inside the leg in the groin region. Cats do not have a readily palpable carotid (neck) pulse.
  4. Bend the left forearm and note the location where the elbow touches the chest. This is close to the middle of the rib cage.
  5. Use one hand to compress the chest from both sides by putting your fingers on one side and your thumb on the other side of the chest. Compress the chest 100-120 times per minute. The rate should be about 30 compressions for every two breaths.
  6. Try to compress the chest wall at least 30-50%. This is about 1" (2 cm) in the average cat.

Is there anything else I should know?

After being involved in an emergency or accident, it is important that you take your cat for a veterinary examination as soon as possible, even if she appears to have recovered fully.

More handouts in the First Aid series provide advice specific to other types of injuries and medical emergencies.

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