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What to Do Before You Get to the Vet in 11 Cat Emergency Situations

Last Updated on June 4, 2015 by Dr. Eric Barchas

Last week’s column discussed 11 of the most serious and common feline medical emergencies. Any time you have identified one of these emergencies — or any other emergency — your highest priority should be to get your cat to the vet.

However, there will always be a period of time before you can get to the vet when you alone will be responsible for helping your cat. You will need to collect your cat, possibly get dressed, and drive to the vet or arrange for a ride to the vet. Once you get to the vet, professional staff will help you. But before you get there you will be on your own. This article is designed to help you get through that period of time.

There are some general rules that are applicable to all feline medical emergencies. The first and most important one is to stay calm. I realize this may be easier said than done, but you should try your hardest. Stress exacerbates most veterinary emergencies; if you lose your cool you will not only be less effective at doing the things you need to do, you will also add to your cat’s stress, potentially making the situation worse.

Speaking of stress, many cats are horribly stressed by the mere sight of a carrier. However, most trips to the vet involve getting your cat into the carrier. (I recognize that this fact may contribute significantly to cats’ carrier aversions.) The last thing you need during an emergency is to have trouble catching your cat, or to have to struggle to get him into the carrier. Therefore, advance preparation in the form of carrier habituation can be highly useful if an emergency strikes. Keep the carrier out, or bring it out regularly. Try to turn it into a cozy retreat where your cat can relax and feel safe — most cats feel comfortable in small enclosed places, so consider the carrier as an alternative to the under-the-bed area. Remember that most cats who are fed in their carriers have no carrier aversion whatsoever.

Finally, remember that most feline veterinary emergencies involve stress or pain for the affected cat. Such cats may bite or scratch anyone who touches them, even if they normally are gentle, loving, and sweet. Take great care not to be injured when handling your cat during an emergency. Do not touch any obviously painful area. When in doubt, use a thick blanket to scoop up your cat.

Now let’s go through specific recommendations for each of last week’s 11 emergencies.

1. Difficulty breathing

Cats with this problem are at high risk from stress. Stress can increase oxygen demand, and if a cat can’t get that oxygen he may become even more stressed. This leads to a potentially catastrophic feedback cycle. Therefore it is crucial that you stay calm, and that you avoid doing anything that causes unnecessary stress. For instance, don’t play loud heavy metal music on the way to the vet. Heat is also a danger for cats with breathing difficulties. On the other hand cool, fresh air (such as might be provided by your car’s air conditioner) often helps the matter. Remember that stress avoidance is the most important thing of all. Blasting the air conditioner in your cat’s face will probably cause additional stress, so try to strike an appropriate balance.

2. Urinary obstruction

Some vets advocate testing your cat for urinary obstruction by pressing on his abdomen to check for pain or vocalization. I do not recommend this. Unless you have palpated hundreds of cats you are not likely to be able to accurately identify a urinary obstruction. Also, pressing on the abdomen of an obstructed cat may cause pain and provoke a bite or scratch. If your cat is having urinary difficulties, try to get him into the carrier without contacting his abdomen and head straight to the vet.

3. Severe pain or distress

In this situation it is crucial to stay calm, avoid increasing your cat’s stress level, and avoid being bitten or scratched. Do not “self medicate” with any human painkillers. Most such medications are toxic to cats, and they may also interfere with drugs that may be necessary at the vet’s office.

4. Sudden paralysis of the hind end

Again: don’t add to your cat’s stress level, don’t get bitten, don’t self medicate, and don’t delay in getting to the vet.

5. Stopping eating or drinking

This is a situation where early recognition is crucial. Some people spend days trying to coax their cats to consume different foods, or syringing water into their cats’ mouths before they give up and go to the vet. I recommend instead that you seek veterinary care as soon as you recognize something’s wrong.

6. Protracted vomiting or diarrhea

Cats with severe gastrointestinal distress usually will not be able to hold down food or water that is offered or, in some cases, forced into their mouths by the owners. In fact, adding anything to an inflamed stomach can trigger vomiting and additional stomach inflammation. Dehydration is a significant concern for cats with vomiting and diarrhea, but oral fluids administered at home often make the problem worse by triggering more vomiting. The best bet is not to offer anything by mouth but instead to head straight to the vet.

7. Known ingestion of toxins

Call the vet immediately to confirm that the item consumed is in fact toxic. And beware of home recipes for inducing vomiting. Such recipes generally call for hydrogen peroxide or salt. Hydrogen peroxide can cause significant gastrointestinal ulceration and is not always effective at causing vomiting. Salt also is not always effective, and when it fails cats can suffer from salt poisoning.

8. Profound lethargy or collapse

Stress avoidance is crucial for collapsed cats. Also avoid self-medicating.

9. Seizure

Seizures are terrifying to behold, but remember that they usually end within one to two minutes. It is best not to handle a seizing cat if possible, since the risk of injury to cat and owner is significant. Use a pillow or thick blanket to protect your cat from injuries such as might occur from falling down a flight of stairs. Do not put anything — especially a hand or finger — near the cat’s mouth. Cats do not swallow their tongues during seizures, but they certainly may accidentally bite a finger or anything inserted into the mouth. If something hard is inserted into the mouth, fractured teeth are likely to result. Once the seizure stops, or if the seizure does not stop within two minutes, head to the vet.

10. Major trauma

Cats who have suffered trauma may be painful. Use care not to exacerbate the pain when handling them, and remember that painful cats may bite or scratch. If it can be done safely, apply gentle pressure with a towel to any area that is bleeding profusely.

11. Fights with other cats

A cat who is fresh out of a fight may be angry. This anger can be redirected at any person who attempts to handle the cat. Since fight wounds are not immediately life threatening, it may be best to wait 30 to 60 minutes for the cat to calm down before heading to the vet for antibiotics and painkillers.

I hope that your cat never experiences a veterinary emergency. But if he or she does, I hope these pointers help you both through the situation.

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!)

About the Author

Dr. Eric Barchas
Dr. Eric Barchas

Dr. Eric Barchas is a professional traveler who spends his spare time working as a full-time veterinarian; contributing to Dogster and Catster; walking, cooking, camping, and exploring the outdoors; skiing (when conditions permit); and reading Booker-shortlisted novels. In between trips Dr. Barchas lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Denise, and his canine pal, Buster. His main veterinary interests are emergency and critical care, wellness, pain management and promotion of the human-animal bond. Dr. Barchas has to Dogster and Catster since May 2005. 

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