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11 Cat Emergencies That Need Immediate Vet Attention

Some cat emergencies come on suddenly and are overt, but others start off vague. Here's how to recognize an emergency situation and when to bring your cat to the vet ASAP.
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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 cat emergencies come on suddenly and are anything but subtle, it is true that many other cat emergencies start with vague symptoms.

It is certainly true that early recognition of subtle cat 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.

Cat with mouth open — trilling, meowing or making another kitty sound.
One way to determine if it’s a medical emergency or not? Examine your cat’s gums. Photography by annadarzy/Thinkstock.

Some helpful hints for determining cat emergencies that need your vet’s attention ASAP

The following list is designed to help you recognize cat 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 cat vet 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 cat 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 cat emergencies:

An orange cat with his mouth open — sneezing or hiccuping.
Difficulty breathing is usually a medical emergency in cats. Photography by Valery Kudryavtsev/Thinkstock.

1. Difficulty breathing

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.”

2. Abnormal urination in male cats

This has the potential to be a symptom of one of the most serious cat emergencies any feline faces: 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 should also  see the vet. They are not likely to die from the problem, but they are likely to be suffering from discomfort that warrants treatment.

3. Signs of severe pain or obvious distress

Bring your kitty to an emergency vet immediately if you notice this one. 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.

4. Sudden paralysis of the hind end

While we’re on the subject of pain, this is one of the most truly painful cat emergencies: 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.

A black cat eating dry food from a bowl.
Have a cat that won’t eat? It might be time to see the vet. Photography by aleg baranau / Shutterstock.

5. Stopping eating and/or drinking

A cat who won’t eat 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 (kidney failure, complications of diabetes and intestinal obstruction) and a cause of (fatty liver) major health problems.

6. Protracted vomiting and/or diarrhea

This is among the cat emergencies that require 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.

7. Known ingestion of toxins

Ingestion of toxics such as lily or antifreeze should be treated immediately. Rapid action can dramatically improve outcomes in many different types of toxicities.

8. Profound lethargy or collapse

This is among the cat emergencies that 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.

9. Seizure

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.

10. Major trauma

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.

11. Fights with other cats

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.

The bottom line on cat emergencies that need immediate vet attention

Cat owners should remember that the above list is not exhaustive; it is not possible to list (or even imagine) all cat emergencies. I wish to reiterate that if you are in doubt, you should call a vet, or simply go to the vet.

This piece was originally published in 2016.

Thumbnail: Photography by DoraZett/Thinkstock.

Read Next: What is a Veterinary Specialist? And When Does Your Cat Need to See One?

127 thoughts on “11 Cat Emergencies That Need Immediate Vet Attention”

  1. Please help . My 8 year old female cat is urinating too much
    She is eating .
    Any help is greatly appreciated
    I’m devastated. She is my emotional support cat for my depression and anxiety

    If anyone is a vet please contact me

  2. Hi, I’m hoping someone might be able to help me. ????????
    My cat is 15 and has had a number of respiratory problems over the last few years which are mainly like different flus. Last June she was so bad the vet suggested putting her down or £2k worth of treatment/checks, but she wouldn’t let them take her blood so they sent us away with some antibiotics to try first and she made a miraculous recovery for a few months. She had so much energy it was like having a cat 10 years younger! ???? Then over Christmas we found a lump in her neck and her flu came back, her first lot of antibiotics helped her appetite but nothing else, then they took her in to take her bloods but said essentially that the results were inconclusive(??) and now she’s not eating at all. She moves around and her eyes are bright but her nose is so blocked and she just stares at her food or takes one biscuit before dropping it again. ???? She also spends all her time in my room against the radiator but is normally always on my lap or bed. I’ve tried steam, decongestants, appetiser tablets, warm fish and encouraging her to eat for ages every time she goes to her bowl but nothing ???? Does anyone have any suggestions? It’s breaking my heart to see her like this. Thanks.

  3. 16 yr old cat, mild weakness in hind legs for quite some time. Sudden severe weakness in hind legs, but not paralysis. Eats normally, drinks normally, uses the litter box.
    Walks a few feet then collapses, rests for a few minutes, then walks again-repeat. Still jumps on the couch and bed (pretty high) but uses mostly front to pull herself up.

  4. My mother has recently had a stroke and had been put into a nursing facility. Since she had left, my cat has started urinating on furniture and on my bed. Is this stress from change or a uti? How do I tell the difference? Obviously, I probably won’t know for sure unless I take her in for testing.

  5. I didn’t know that cat’s gums should be pink and moist as you described. I happened to see my cat’s gums last night and noticed that they’re a bit pale. Maybe it’s time for me to have him checked at a nearby animal clinic to see if this is something I should be alarmed about.

  6. My cat is 8.5 and she recently Stopped eating, she pees in random places, she sleeps often even though she is normally active, and her gums are pale. Obviously, on this that says that is an emergency. But, i never went to the vet until my friend called behind my back. The doctor said it was severe.
    I took her to the vet and the vet took her into surgery. She has severe Anemia, and would’ve died in a few days if we didn’t take her.
    She has a high chance of not surviving surgery and even if she does, she might not leave the vet. I’m sharing this to let you know that you need to check out your cat often because things like this might happen to you

    dear my cat- if you don’t make it, i’m sorry… rest in piece~..

    1. Be postive. Thats how i get through my life. mabey she will make it. If she does not, she will be happier in heaven with god holding her, god will take good care of her. She will no longer deal with any pain. If she makes it and has to stay, keep in mind she will be back with you shortly, and that she is in good hands.

  7. my 13 yr old red tabby became tired, lethargic and stayed in bed for 4-5 days..then went back outside and within two days started wailing in pain…low, gutteral exclamations that tear at your heart. I took him to vet…full blood panel normal, xrays show nothing. He eats less but still eating, drinks some, internal pain with certain movements, no vomiting or diarrea . Vets are stumped…just gave him a steroid shot, charged me $400 and sent me home. Steroid seems to have lessened the pain a tiny bit, but still bad and stays in bed. Any ideas at all of what the heck this is?

  8. Hi,
    My 4 months old kitten might have eaten a bit of pesticide. The next day he didn’t eat anything and stayed hidden from everyone. Now he has started to drink water and we force him to eat food. He has been coughing and sometimes breathes with his mouth open. He also has discharges from his nose and eyes and I can see his white eyelids (third eyelids). So please tell me what I should do??

  9. We are trying to decide if we should transfer our kitty to a vet hospital as she has been at vets since Thursday morning with symptoms of regurgitation, hiding, not eating enough, a bit jaundice and lethargic. They have hours 8:30am-7pm and until 4pm weekends which means a tech “stops by” after hours to administer injections to medicated pets. I read about kidney and liver problems and their 2 bloodwork results (Thursday and Saturday) indicated average liver but rising bilirubin counts (possible bile duct obstruction). One vet stated on Saturday taking her home Monday after an ultrasound to confirm with pills and the other (sunday) agreed they should start tube feeding (I recommended this from day one instead of Syringe feeding 2-3x/day). They claimed they are giving her iv fluids (what they won’t tell me) but I recommended antibiotics, anti nausea, vitamin K) & L in her food. We even left her quality food she loves at home but they won’t use it. They state Dr. is always with a patient or in surgery and techs can’t come to phone so they have receptionist give limited info (we have basic questions like did she hold food down, urinate, eat, feverish, able to stretch outside of cage, who administers food & IV, and do they actually fully feed her even if she resists. They state vet will call at end of day with details. If we didn’t visit her daily, we would never know if she is stable, declining or improving! There is no menu of prices so we can be charged whatever they want to “keep her alive.” Should we pull her out to be monitored 24/7 at a hospital or trust them?

  10. Thanks for explaining that our cat needs medical attention if they move lethargically or start hiding for long periods of time. My husband and I have both been working from home for the last few months and think it would be fun to get a cat to keep us company. I appreciate you teaching me how to monitor the cat’s health so we can get proper veterinary care for them, even after-hours if needed!

  11. my cat is 4 and he hasn’t eaten for 3 days, he’s weak and walks slow, he stopped purring and licking himself. He quiety meows when you try to pick him up, he won’t go outside and he pees once a day but in the house, it just suddenly happened and normally he’s healthy and active and runs really fast and catches rats, we are thinking of going to the vets but we don’t know if it’s serious. He is also going super skinny and his fur is going messy.

    1. We have a . ragdoll kitty stopped eating loosing weight he had been at vet he has kidney sones we have bought him home on medications but he wont toych the food at all will have ti take hum back just wants to sleep

    2. Patricia Charman

      Take your kitty to the Vet ASAP. Cats cannot go 3 days without eating without ending up with some liver problems. They are ok for 1-2 days without food, but not longer. Something is obviously wrong; please take your cat to the Vet. He is suffering and is not well.

  12. Jo-Ann Portanova

    Hi,
    My 4ish year old spayed cat has being peeing blood for about 4 days. I have tried many times to get her into the carrier to bring her to the Vet. It is only making her more stressed and scared. She was a feral cat that I have had for about 18 months now, but she is still very skittish. I am so worried and don’t know what to do to help her.

    Any help would be great!!!!

    Jo-Ann

    1. Patricia Charman

      Check to see if your Vet or any Vet will make a house call in your area….. it would be better.if you could get her to the Vet’s office, with all it’s equipment … but in a pinch, if a Vet will make a house call, that should get your kitty diagnosed hopefully, and treatment started. One way or another, your kitty needs to see a Vet. Good luck.

  13. Am having trouble with my older tabby bout 7 yrs old he is peeing on couch and pooping the litter is clean can’t understand I was sitting on edge of couch he pooped behind me I also have 4 other cats they are females not sure what to do been going on for 3 weeks first started out in kitchen pooping and peeing now living couch I don’t wnna give him up but I can’t have my house destroyed by cat pee and cat poop ..

    1. Try putting out more litter boxes. I’ve been told the general rule should be one per cat plus one extra.

    2. Patricia Charman

      Your Vet may be able to uncover what it causing your older cat to “pee and poop” outside of the box.

      Another thing to check out are his claws and Paws. If the Claws are overgrown and starting to curl around into the paws, that is painful for your kitty, especially when walking on the litter.
      I also agree with the other person who replied to you, about the boxes. You should have at the least, one box per cat, and ideally, an extra. The boxes need to be kept clean, because like us, cats can be very picky about using a box which is not clean. I have 3 litter boxes for my two kitties, and I clean them every time I see they have been used … no big deal. ????

  14. Tifini N. Burge

    My 2 yr old tabby snores and snorts. He’s done this since he was a kitty. He is very active and happy and does not show any signs of sickness. Should I be worried? What should I do? I have a vet who comes to the house. Still, I don’t have a lot of money right now.

    1. it doesn’t seem like anything to worry about especially if it is since birth, most cats snore as a normal thing or maybe it’s just a blocked nose, but i’m sure it will be fine. :)

  15. praveena menon

    my cat who is usually very energetic is now very silent, inactive and always hide in bushes even if we c\go near him. he doesnt even look at us and wont touch even his milk. he makes painful noises at times. and he has stopped eating now. usually he run to us whenevr we call him but now he doesnt even notice. pls help.

    1. Patricia Charman

      Cows milk is not good for your cat, if that is what you are feeding him. Cats cannot digest the enzymes in cow’s milk, and his belly would be pretty sore and crampy. He would not want to eat at all, if this is what is going on…… You can buy milk that is specifically made for cats and he should have no problems with that.

      The bottom line, however, is that your kitty really needs to see a Vet.

  16. Pingback: When Your Cat Grieves | Catster – Petcobestfood.com

  17. I have fostered over 150 cats/kittens, owned 7 seniors aged 13-17 and never heard of Ventricular Disease. My 13 year old flew out at me from a hiding spot, fell, holding head to one side. He couldn’t walk at all. I took him to vet and on way, noticed eyes darting side to side. While waiting for vet, looked up symptoms. I told them what I thought it was, was right on. My heart broke seeing him suffer. They sent me home with an antibiotic for middle ear infection, a tranquilizer and anti vomit medicine. I didnt want him to get hurt so put in a cage so I could treat regularly on schedule. After a week, he seemed better, though angry. He jumped out of cage and the falling started again.
    He bit me when trying to put in carrier. Vet said state law said cannot euthanize for 10 days after bite/claw. I let him have run of the house after 2 weeks. still dizzy or holding head to one side when he’s been sleeping but eating well. back to being sweet. I was going to euthanize him, they felt it was likely an inner ear tumor if meds didn’t solve issue. Guess not much is understood about Ventricular disease.

    1. I think you might mean vestibular disease, my cat has it along with nystagmus (eyes darting side to side). I thought he has been poisoned but it is a problem with the fluid in the inner ear. My cat has adapted to it with his head on the side walking when it is bad which keeps him balanced. He has steroids when it is bad but he doesnt have it as often as he used to and it is much milder. Sometimes he used to circle round and fall over looking spaced out. My next door human neighbour has it and she says it makes you feel really sick so no wonder he is a bit mean. Please look up vestibular disease in cats not ventricular disease

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