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Cat Emergency Symptoms That Need Veterinary Care

Lisa K. Campbell, DVM
cat with broken leg

Medical emergencies in cats can come on suddenly and be visually obvious. Or, they can come on slowly and be harder for you to detect. There are some emergency symptoms that every cat parent should be able to recognize so that you can seek veterinary help as soon as possible. In all of the following situations, don't waste precious time by trying to treat the symptoms at home.

Emergency Symptoms That Require Veterinary Treatment

This list is not exhaustive but includes some of the most common emergencies seen in cats. In each of these situations, if possible, call your veterinarian or the emergency hospital to let them know you are coming and what symptoms you are seeing in your cat. This allows the staff to be better prepared for your arrival.

Difficulty Breathing

Cats normally do not "pant" like dogs. A cat with breathing issues may:

  • Breathe with his mouth open
  • Move the sides of the abdomen forcefully while breathing
  • Wheeze or cough while breathing

Occasionally a cat may pant in the carrier on the way to the vet because he's anxious, but it should never happen in a home environment unless something is wrong.

It is very important not to stress a cat that is having difficulty breathing. Try to get your cat inside a carrier as gently as possible and cover the carrier with a towel prior to transporting him to the vet.

Difficulty or Inability to Urinate

This condition occurs mainly in male cats due to their anatomy and diet. Any sort of change in urinary habits can be a potential emergency in male cats. A cat with difficulty urinating will:

  • Vocalize while in the litter box
  • Strain to urinate while producing only small amounts, possibly with blood
  • Urinate outside the litter box
  • Excessively groom his genital area

The condition can be fatal if not treated immediately. The kidney values will increase and can lead to kidney failure. The bladder can rupture if the urinary blockage is not relieved. Female cats with urinary symptoms should be checked, but it is not potentially fatal or emergent like in male cats. Make sure to tell your veterinarian when you first noticed the urinary symptoms and if your cat is still eating or drinking.

Sudden Paralysis of the Hind End

The most common cause of paralysis in cats is a clot that goes to the back legs. It is often called a saddle thrombus. It is usually caused by underlying heart disease. The symptoms of a paralyzing blood clot are:

  • Sudden weakness of the hind end
  • Inability to use one or both rear legs
  • Extreme pain indicated by vocalizing
  • Cold rear legs or paws

This is an immediate emergency. Tell your veterinarian if you have noticed any symptoms such as lethargy or coughing prior to the paralysis, as they can be signs of a heart problem.

Seizures

Seizures are more common in dogs but can occur in cats too. They are usually caused by a brain disorder but can also be from ingestion of a toxin or a virus. A cat having a seizure may experience:

  • Twitching of the head or limbs
  • Dilated pupils or appearing blind
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Excessive drooling
  • Opening and closing of the mouth or rapid "chewing" like movements
  • Difficulty standing or falling down

A seizure can be mild or severe and last a few seconds to minutes. When the seizure ends gently place your cat in his carrier prior to transporting him to the vet. Any seizure that is going on for more than several minutes needs immediate veterinary attention. If not treated, a prolonged seizure can cause permanent brain damage. Make sure you tell your veterinarian what symptoms you noted during the seizure, how long it lasted, and if you observed anything unusual in your cat prior to the seizure.

Toxin/Poison Ingestion

It is hard to know if your cat has ingested something it should not have, since the symptoms can also be common to other issues. But some of the more serious things to look for in a cat that has ingested a toxin are:

  • Vomiting that does not stop
  • Salivation that will not stop
  • Collapse
  • Circling or seeming unbalanced when trying to walk

The symptoms of toxin ingestion vary depending on what the toxin is. If you know that your cat has eaten something it shouldn't (like Easter lilies or rat bait) then you can call the ASPCA poison control center. They will provide you with a case number and your veterinarian can consult with the center to provide the best care for your cat. Do not ever try to make your cat vomit at home. If possible, bring the toxin and the container it came in with you to your veterinarian.

Eye Injuries

Eye injuries that are severe can cause permanent damage if not treated right away. A cat with a little eye discharge is not necessarily an emergency. But if you notice any of these symptoms seek care immediately:

A cat that has glaucoma or high blood pressure will appear blind. A scratch on the cornea will be very painful. Quick treatment can make sure your cat does not suffer permanent damage or even the loss of his eye.

Cat wearing medical cone collar

Anaphylactic Shock

This is the most severe form of an allergic reaction. It can be from a vaccine, bug bite or a toxin. Symptoms are:

  • Swelling around the face
  • Hives or circular raised areas on the skin
  • Sudden vomiting and diarrhea that does not stop
  • Pacing
  • White gums
  • Collapse

Anaphylactic shock can lead to collapse, difficulty breathing and even death if it is not treated immediately. In this case it is important to get your cat to the vet as soon as possible. Tell your veterinarian if your cat was recently outdoors, or if there have been any changes to your cat's diet, environment, or any toxins in the house he may have had access to.

Not Eating or Drinking

A dog can go a few days without eating but a cat should not. A cat that shows no interest in food or water for more than a day should be seen by your veterinarian. Very large cats that don't eat can develop a very serious condition called hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver disease. Lack of appetite or interest in water can also be a symptom of kidney disease, diabetes, or an intestinal disorder.

Tell your veterinarian what kind of food your cat normally eats and when the last time you saw your cat eat or drink was.

How to Be Prepared for a Cat Emergency

Emergencies, by definition, are unplanned events. It is hard to stay calm when your cat is having a medical emergency, but being prepared will make this easier. Have the phone number for your regular veterinary clinic, the nearest emergency center, and the poison control center nearby at all times.

The list above is not exhaustive. When in doubt, call your vet or local emergency clinic. And if your cat is obviously injured, bleeding, or unresponsive, get him to your vet or the emergency clinic as soon as possible.

Cat Emergency Symptoms That Need Veterinary Care