The Basics of Cat First Aid
If your cat has been in an accident or is suffering from the onset of a sudden illness, basic first aid might save her life. Because cats can't explain what's happened to them or where they hurt, it's important that you learn to read the signs of distress and do what's necessary to keep your cat alive until she is treated by your veterinarian.
First, you should be careful to do no harm. Your objective in administering first aid is to preserve life, alleviate suffering, promote recovery and prevent aggravation of the illness or injury.
Above all, take some deep breaths and stay calm. If you're upset, your cat will sense your alarm and make it impossible for you to administer first aid.
Be Prepared with a First Aid Kit
No cat owner should be without a cat first aid kit. You can buy a pre-assembled one or save money by building your own. Here are the basic components:
- Waterproof box with a secure lid (one with a handle is convenient) in which to stow the items
- Sharp-point tweezers
- Digital rectal thermometer
- Small blunt-point scissors
- Sterile gauze pads
- Rolled sterile gauze
- White surgical tape
- Cotton balls and a roll of cotton padding
- Hydrogen Peroxide (a wound cleanser)
- Sterile eyewash solution (The human version is fine.)
- Antiseptic cleanser
- Hydrocortisone ointment
- Eye dropper
- List of your pet's medicines (including dosage), and any medical conditions
- Ice pack or big bag of frozen peas (Keep in your freezer and wrap in a towel before using.)
- Book on cat first aid (Read it before your cat needs first aid.)
- Tape the following telephone numbers to the inside lid: 1) Your vet (including after-hours numbers),2) the phone number, address and map to the nearest pet ER, 3) the phone number of a mobile vet if you don't have a car, and 4) the ASPCA's 24/7/365 poison control center: (888) 426-4435
Your cat's vital signs can help determine how severe the injury or illness is. As a general guideline, your cat's normal temperature, pulse and respiration will fall within these ranges:
- Temperature: 100.4'F-102.5'F
- Pulse: 160-240 per minute
- Respiration: 20-30 per minute
It's always good to take baseline measurements when your cat is healthy and relaxed, and keep those numbers in your first aid kit. This will also give you practice taking your cat's vital signs so that you're adept at it prior to an emergency.
Keep in mind that if your cat has suffered significant trauma, it's more important to get her to a veterinary facility than use precious minutes wrestling with her to get a temperature or trying to find the femoral artery to get a pulse.
How to Take Your Cat's Temperature
Unless your cat is unusually docile, you'll need a helper to hold her while you take her temperature. Here's how to do it:
- Lubricate the tip of the thermometer with petroleum or KY jelly or other water-soluble lubricant.
- Have your helper gently grab the scruff of the neck hold the front legs still.
- Lift your cat's tail and insert the thermometer slowly and carefully into the rectum.
- Don't force it. Gently insert the thermometer about 1 inch and hold it in place until the thermometer beeps.
- Remove the thermometer and read the temperature.
- Kittens under four weeks of age do not yet have self-regulating temperatures; they depend on maternal body contact to stay warm. They do need to maintain a temperature of 96ºF for normal milk digestion.
- If your cat is having difficulty breathing, you should not attempt to take her temperature.
How to Take Your Cat's Pulse
To find your cat's pulse, press your first two fingers against the inside of her upper hind leg, where the large femoral artery is located. If your cat is obese, you may not be able to find a pulse.
Count the pulse for 15 seconds, then multiply by four to get the beats-per-minute. In an emergency situation, you should report the pulse rate to your vet. An extremely fast pulse can indicate that your cat has gone into shock. If your cat's pulse is very weak, she's slipping away and needs immediate veterinary attention.
How to Determine Your Cat's Respiratory Rate
To determine the breathing rate, watch your cat's chest movement up and down. Count either inhalations or exhalations for 15 seconds, and multiply by four to calculate the breaths per minute.
The nature of your cat's breathing (rapid, labored, shallow or irregular) is as important as the rate, and can help you determine how serious her situation is:
- Rapid breathing can indicate shock or lack of oxygen.
- Labored breathing may be a clue that there is an obstruction or severe chest injury.
- Shallow breathing can indicate weakness or chest pain.
- Irregular breathing is the most serious respiratory sign, indicating the need for immediate veterinary attention.
What to Do in an Emergency
- Remove your cat's collar.
- Clear her airways to ensure that she can breathe.
- Clear her nose and throat of any foreign material, blood, or fluids.
- Give artificial respiration if she is not breathing.
- Use pressure points or tourniquets to stop or control bleeding.
- Perform CPR if your cat is in cardiac arrest. Often, a firm blow on the side of the chest, just behind the shoulder, will work. Continue CPR until the cat's heart is pumping on its own and the cat is breathing. This may require that someone drive you to the vet while you continue to administer CPR. (CPR is not administered just for resuscitation, but to keep the heart pumping blood to the brain until your cat gets to the vet, so don't give up after a few minutes if she is not revived.)
- Apply clean, dry dressings to her wounds.
- Keep her warm to avoid shock. Wrap her in a blanket and put her in a box or carrier.
- Move your cat as little as possible to keep from doing additional harm. Cats will naturally assume a position that causes them the least pain.
- If your cat is unconscious, lift her body to a position in which her head is slightly lower than the rest of the body. Never give anything to an unconscious cat by mouth.
- Transport the cat to a vet or pet ER.
- If a friend or family member is available, have him phone the vet or pet ER to alert the staff (and ensure they are open).
If you're prepared for an emergency, you'll be in a much better position to save your cat's life. Keep your pet first aid kit in an easily accessible location and practice basic first aid before your cat's life depends on it.