In my role as an emergency vet, I treat some very sick cats. And I also meet some cat owners who feel very guilty. They wonder if their cats wouldn’t have gotten so sick had they realized sooner that a problem was developing. Although some cat emergencies are sudden and far from subtle, many other cat emergencies start with vague symptoms.
It is sure to be true that spotting subtle cat emergencies early will improve the chances of a good outcome. Owners shouldn’t feel guilty for not realizing these subtleties, however – cats don’t have warning labels, and a person who isn’t familiar with the symptoms cannot be expected to recognize them (and by definition, subtle symptoms are) difficult to recognize). For example, I owned cats – including men – for 25 years before I knew that any urinary irregularity in a male cat could be an emergency.
Some helpful tips for identifying cat emergencies that need your veterinarian’s attention as soon as possible
The following list is designed to help you identify cat emergencies that always warrant an immediate visit to the vet. However, it is not intended to be exhaustive and you may find yourself in an ambiguous situation that is not on the list. If you are wondering whether to step out of your pajamas and see an emergency cat doctor in such a situation, there are a few guidelines you can follow.
A useful indicator of cat health is the color of the gums. Now, lift your cat’s lip and look at his gums. They should be pink and moist. Check them out regularly and you will get a sense of how they look normal. If you suspect that your cat is sick and the gums are pale, gray, blue, or bright red, your cat is most likely in trouble (although you should be aware that your cat may still be in trouble, even if the gums are normal pink in color).
Also, remember that you can always call your feline veterinarian or your local emergency clinic to discuss any unclear situations. The staff should be able to provide guidance.
Finally, remember that when in doubt, it is always safest to have a veterinarian examine your cat. A physical exam that does not reveal anything wrong does no harm. Failure to take action in a critical situation can lead to fatal consequences.
Now let’s list some of the most common and serious cat emergencies:
1. Difficulty breathing
This is the most urgent emergency any person – cat, dog or human – can face. Death occurs after three minutes without breathing, leaving cats with breathing difficulties on the verge of disaster. Breathing problems in cats can be difficult to spot at first. Symptoms to look out for include floating pages, open mouth breathing, coughing, wheezing, abnormal breathing sounds, and the overall appearance of “fun breathing”.
2. Abnormal urination in male cats
This can be a symptom of one of the most serious cat emergencies cats face: urinary obstruction. This condition, which is fatal if left untreated, occurs when cats cannot urinate. For anatomical reasons, it occurs almost exclusively in men.
Cats with the disease experience excruciating pain and rapid progression of kidney failure, possible bladder rupture, and high blood potassium levels that cause cardiac arrest. The first symptoms can be subtle: Affected cats may urinate outside the litter box, make exertion but produce small amounts of urine, vocalize excessively, or groom their genitals.
Therefore, any male cat with urinary irregularities should be examined immediately by a veterinarian. Note that female cats with urinary irregularities should also see the veterinarian. They are unlikely to die from the problem, but they are likely to have symptoms that warrant treatment.
3. Signs of severe pain or obvious distress
Take your kitten to an ambulance right away if you notice this. Pain itself always requires treatment, but it can also be a sign of more serious problems such as urinary obstruction (see above) or aortic thromboembolism (see below). Symptoms of pain and stress include vocalizing (howling), wheezing, hiding, and overreacting to come into contact with a painful area.
4. Sudden paralysis of the hind end
While we deal with pain, it is one of the most painful emergencies in cats: aortic thromboembolism, or ATE. ATE is a complication of heart disease in cats in which a blood clot (usually) builds up in the back legs. It causes sudden paralysis of the hind end. Affected cats will gasp, talk, and usually show other signs of distress. It requires immediate veterinary attention.
5. Stop eating and / or drinking
A cat that doesn’t eat often means serious problems. It is not normal for a person to go without food for a whole day when food is available, and not eating can be a symptom (kidney failure, complications of diabetes, and intestinal obstruction) and a cause of serious health problems (fatty liver).
6. Prolonged vomiting and / or diarrhea
This is one of those cat emergencies that requires immediate veterinary attention. especially when there is blood. Almost all cats occasionally yake or have soft stools, and such incidents are usually not emergencies. Cats who vomit repeatedly or have diarrhea should see a veterinarian immediately.
7. Known intake of toxins
Ingestion of toxins such as lily or antifreeze should be treated immediately. Rapid action can dramatically improve results for many different types of toxicities.
8. Profound lethargy or breakdown
This is one of the cat emergencies that should trigger an urgent trip to the vet. Profound lethargy often manifests as “non-moving,” hiding in a room for long periods of time, and not responding in a normal way to stimuli (like the can opener or the dog).
While a single seizure is unlikely to be life threatening, owners should be aware that seizures often occur in clusters that worsen over the course of several hours. They can also be a symptom of exposure to toxins such as mold or low-quality flea control agents. Cats who have a seizure should see the veterinarian straight away.
10. Severe trauma
This should always trigger a visit to the vet. Owners of cats with gashes or massive bleeding usually know this intuitively. However, sometimes cats that have fallen from a height, hit by cars, hit by garage doors, or attacked by large dogs, may have serious internal injuries and appear unharmed after the incident. Whenever you are aware of such an event, your cat should be checked out.
11. F.Nights with other cats
Cats who have fought with other cats should see the veterinarian sooner rather than later. Cat wounds are relatively easy to treat with antibiotics if caught early. If there is a delay, an abscess may develop that requires anesthesia and surgery.
The bottom line in cat emergencies that require immediate veterinary attention
Cat owners should remember that the above list is not exhaustive. It is not possible to list (or even introduce yourself) all cat emergencies. I want to reiterate that when in doubt, you should call a vet or just go to the vet.
This piece was originally released in 2016.
Preview: Photography by DoraZett / Thinkstock.
Continue reading: What is a Veterinary Specialist? And when does your cat need to see one?