QUESTION: I consider myself to be a very responsible pet owner and try to give my cat the best of care. In the past I have sometimes rushed my cat to an emergency clinic only to discover that the problem was a minor issue. How do I know when my cat truly needs to be taken to the vet immediately, as opposed to waiting until the next day and seeing my regular vet? Going to an emergency vet clinic can be quite costly, but I don’t want to hesitate if there is a true crisis.
ANSWER: This is an excellent question and one that we often hear from our adopters and foster parents. Although minor ailments like the sniffles or sneezing can wait until the next day, some conditions need to be treated immediately, and hesitation of even a few hours can mean the difference between life and death. Knowing what signs to look for is crucial in determining when to seek emergency care for your cat. Below is a list of some of the most common cat emergencies and their signs. These “top five emergencies in cats” are condensed from an article on the website CatHealth.com.
1. Urethral Obstruction: This is a condition in which a cat, usually male, is unable to urinate due to a blockage in the urethra (the tube leading from the urinary bladder to the outside environment).
Cats will show a sudden onset of restless behavior which includes frequent trips in and out of the litter box. They will often attempt to urinate in unusual places such as in a bath tub or on a plastic bag. You may notice a very small stream of urine that contains blood. More often than not, despite a cat’s straining, there may be no urine or even just a drop produced. In later stages of the obstruction, cats may cry loudly, vomit, and become lethargic.
You should consider these signs a serious emergency and seek veterinary care immediately. There are reports of cats developing kidney failure and dying within 12 hours after the onset of signs. Expect your cat to be hospitalized at least 36 hours for treatment of this condition which may include a urinary catheter, intravenous fluids, and pain management. Female cats are less likely to become obstructed due to their wider urinary tract.
2. Toxicities (Poisoning): The combination of their curious nature and unique metabolism (the way their body breaks down chemicals) makes cats very vulnerable to toxins. Owners are often not aware that their home contains multiple products that are poisonous to their feline companions. The most common cat toxins include antifreeze, Tylenol, rat or mouse poison, and poisonous plants, such as lilies.
The signs your cat displays depend on what type of poison they have encountered. Antifreeze will often cause wobbliness or a drunken appearance first, and then progresses to vomiting/weakness as the kidneys fail. Tylenol may cause an unusual swelling of the head and changes the cat’s blood color from red to chocolate brown. Rat or mouse poison interferes with blood clotting so you may see weakness from internal blood loss or visible blood in urine or stool. Cats that are experiencing lily poisoning will often exhibit signs of depression, vomiting, diarrhea, and lack of appetite (anorexia).
3. Breathing Problems: Many times cats hide the signs of breathing problems by simply decreasing their activity. By the time an owner notices changes in the cat’s breathing, it may be very late in the progression of the cat’s lung disease. There are several causes of breathing changes but the most common are feline asthma, heart or lung disease.
4. Sudden inability to use the hind legs: Cats with some forms of heart disease are at risk for developing blood clots. Many times these clots can lodge in a large blood vessel called the aorta where they can prevent normal blood flow to the hind legs. If your cat experiences such a blood clotting episode (often called a saddle thrombus or thromboembolic episode), you will likely see a sudden loss of the use of their hind legs, painful crying, and breathing changes.
On arrival at the emergency room, your pet will receive pain management and oxygen support. Tests will be done to evaluate the cat’s heart and determine if there is any heart failure (fluid accumulation in the lungs). Sadly, such an episode is often the first clue for an owner that their cat has severe heart disease. In most cases, with time and support, the blood clot can resolve, but the cat’s heart disease will require life-long treatment.
5. Sudden Blindness: A sudden loss of vision is most likely to occur in an older cat. The most common causes are increased blood pressure (hypertension) that may be due to changes in thyroid function (hyperthyroidism) or kidney disease. There are some cats that appear to have hypertension with no other underlying disease.
Sudden blindness should be treated as an emergency and your veterinarian will measure your cat’s blood pressure, check blood tests, and start medications to try to lower the pressure and restore vision.
Anytime you notice a change in your cat’s eyes, whether they lose vision or not, you should consider this an emergency and have your pet seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Although these are listed as the “top five emergencies,” there are other conditions that can be life-threatening. Knowing your own cat and his or her typical behavior is the best way of ensuring that you will notice something that is outside the norm. Calling your vet with the symptoms will give you the proper guidance as to how you can proceed to safeguard the well-being of your beloved companion.