In my role as an emergency veterinarian I treat some very sick cats. And I also meet some cat owners who feel very guilty. They wonder whether their cats might not have gotten so sick if they had recognized earlier that a problem was developing.
Although some emergencies come on suddenly and are anything but subtle, it is true that many others start with vague symptoms. It is certainly true that early recognition of subtle emergencies will improve the chances of a good outcome. But owners should not feel guilty if they fail to recognize these subtleties — cats don’t come with warning labels, and a person who doesn’t know the symptoms can’t be expected to recognize them (and, by definition, subtle symptoms are hard to recognize).
For instance, I owned cats — including males — for 25 years before I knew that any urinary irregularity whatsoever in a male cat could be an emergency.
The following list is designed to help you recognize feline emergencies that always warrant an immediate trip to the vet. However, it is not exhaustive, and you may find yourself in an ambiguous situation not covered on the list. If you are wondering whether you need to get out of your pajamas and head to the emergency clinic in such a situation, there are some guidelines you can follow.
One useful indicator of cat health is the color of the gums. Lift your cat’s lip and look at his gums now. They should be pink and moist. Check them regularly, and you’ll get a sense of what they look like normally. If you suspect your cat is sick and the gums are pale, grey, blue, or bright red, then your cat most likely is in trouble (although you should be aware that your cat might still be in trouble even if the gums are their normal pink color).
Remember as well that you are always free to call your family vet or your local emergency clinic to talk about any ambiguous situation. The staff should be able to offer guidance.
Finally, remember that when in doubt it is always safest to have a vet evaluate your cat. A physical exam that reveals nothing wrong causes no harm; doing nothing about a critical situation can lead to a fatal outcome.
Now let’s list some of the most common and serious feline veterinary emergencies.
This is the most urgent emergency any individual — cat, dog, or human — can face. Death occurs after three minutes without breathing, so cats with breathing difficulties are on the edge of disaster. Breathing problems in cats can be hard to recognize at first. Symptoms to watch out for are heaving sides, breathing with the mouth open, coughing, wheezing, abnormal respiratory noises, and the catch-all appearance of “breathing funny.”
This has the potential to be a symptom of one of the most serious crises any cat can face: urinary obstruction. This condition, which is fatal if not treated, occurs when cats are unable to urinate. For anatomical reasons it occurs almost exclusively in males. Cats with the condition suffer agonizing pain, and then rapid progression to kidney failure, potentially bladder rupture, and high blood-potassium levels that cause cardiac arrest. Initial symptoms may be subtle: Affected cats may urinate outside the litter box, strain but produce only small quantities of urine, vocalize, or groom their genitals excessively. Therefore, any male cat with any urinary irregularity whatsoever should be checked by a vet immediately. Be aware that female cats with urinary irregularities also should see the vet. They are not likely to die from the problem, but they are likely to be suffering from discomfort that warrants treatment.
This should receive immediate veterinary attention. Pain itself always warrants treatment, but it also can be a sign of more serious problems such as urinary obstruction (see above) or aortic thromboembolism (see below). Symptoms of pain and distress include vocalizing (howling), panting, hiding, and overreacting to contact with a painful area.
While we’re on the subject of pain, we should discuss an emergency that is among the most painful events that can happen to a cat: aortic thromboembolism, or ATE. ATE is a complication of heart disease in cats in which a blood clot lodges in the rear (usually) legs. It causes sudden paralysis of the hind end. Affected cats usually will pant, vocalize, and show other signs of distress. It requires immediate veterinary attention.
This often means serious trouble. It is not normal for any individual to go a full day without eating when food is available, and not eating can be a symptom of (kidney failure, complications of diabetes, intestinal obstruction) and a cause of (fatty liver) major health problems.
This requires immediate veterinary attention, especially when blood is present. Almost all cats occasionally yak or have soft stools, and such incidents usually aren’t emergencies. But cats who vomit repeatedly or have blowout diarrhea should see the vet immediately.
Ingestion of toxics such as lily or antifreeze should be treated immediately. Rapid action can dramatically improve outcomes in many different types of toxicities.
This should trigger an urgent trip to the vet. Profound lethargy often manifests as “not moving,” hiding in one room for a protracted period, and not reacting to stimuli (such as the can opener or the dog) in a normal fashion.
Although a solitary seizure is not likely to be life threatening, owners should be aware that seizures often come in clusters that get worse over the course of several hours. They also can be a symptom of exposure to toxins such as mold or low-quality flea control products. Cats who suffer a seizure should go straight to the vet.
This should always trigger a veterinary visit. Owners of cats with gaping wounds or massive hemorrhage usually know this intuitively. However, sometimes cats who have fallen from height, been hit by cars, struck by garage doors, or attacked by large dogs can have major internal injuries yet appear unharmed after the incident. Any time you are aware of such an occurrence, your cat should be checked out.
Cats who have been in fights with other cats should see the vet sooner rather than later. Cat fight wounds are relatively easy to treat with antibiotics if they are caught early. If a delay occurs, an abscess may develop that requires anesthesia and surgery.
Cat owners should remember that the above list is not exhaustive; it is not possible to list (or even imagine) every type of emergency situation that a cat might face. I wish to reiterate that if you are in doubt, you should call a vet, or simply go to the vet.
Next week we will revisit this list with a different perspective. We will discuss how to handle each of these emergencies at home and while you’re on the way to the vet.
Other stories by Dr. Eric Barchas:
Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and your topic might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)
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