Accidents Medical Emergencies (Part 1)

The Veterinarians’ Guide to Your Cat’s Symptoms: Accidents Medical Emergencies

Most emergency situations involving cats are usually due either to accidental injury or to illness. Emergencies due to accidental injury may include trauma,such as a bad fall, hard blow, or being hit by a moving vehicle. In these cases a cat may suffer from fractures, concussion, or other internal injuries. Lacerations and woundsran be emergency situations if there is a lot of blood loss, and bite wounds from other cats can cause abscesses and serious infections such as pyothorax. It is an emergency situation if a cat eats a poisoned rat or mouse or ingests a harmful household substance such as antifreeze, human medication, or some poisonous plants. Because of their propensity to play with string or thread, both kittens and cats often swallow this type of material and these “linear” foreign bodies can obstruct and/or cut through a cat’s intestines. A cat can be accidentally burned, electrocuted, or suffer from smoke inhalation;in rare cases, cats can also drown. An illness may be an emergency if it is sudden andacute, or an ongoing illness can become an emergency for many reasons.

Avoiding Accidents

An important thing for a cat owner to bear in mind is that no matter how smart a kitten or cat may be, he has no concept of potential danger, especially if he has lived in a protected environment all of his life. It is up to an owner to think for her pet and try to make sure he is protected from dangerous situations as far as is possible.

When an owner is aware of the types of accidental emergency situations a kitten or cat can get himself into, she can use her common sense to take steps to avoid them. By anticipating danger for a kitten or cat, just as she would for a human toddler, an owner can prevent many emergency situations from arising.


One of the best things an owner of a new kitten (or even an adult cat that is new to the household) can do to protect a pet from accidental injury in the home is to take time to carefully examine the space the kitten will be living in, from the animal’s point of view, and remove any potential hazards.

For the first few days, many owners find it is best to confine a new kitten or cat to one room so he can become used to the household and its other residents gradually. A frightened new kitten may prefer a safe dark space at first, so any room where he can find a nice big piece of furniture to get underneath may suit him best. Food and water dishes and a litter pan should be placed nearby. As soon as the kitten begins to emerge from his hiding place and make friends with the humans in the household, it is usually safe to allow him the run of the house.

In general, kittens do not seem to suffer from much discomfort from teething, but they may still chew on things, especially dangling cords or wires. If a kitten chews on a pluggedin electric wire, he can easily be electrocuted, so it is safest to unplug electric wires when no one is around to watch a kitten, at least until an owner is sure the kitten will not chew on them.

As we mentioned above, almost all kittens and cats are intrigued by anything long and thin such as string, thread, or yarn (tinsel is especially tempting at Christmastime, and can be lethal). A thorough search should be made of the house before a kitten or cat is allowed complete freedom, to be sure all such objects are securely put away in a drawer or behind a closed door. Remember, it is not enough to put them up on a high surface or cubbyhole—cats can jump high and are able to squeeze into small spaces.


Because cats cannot be confined with a fence to a yard or run, the only way to avoid the possible trauma from their being hit by a car, motorcycle, or bicycle is to keep them indoors or teach them to walk with a harness and leash. As we mentioned in Chapter 2, indoor-only cats not only lead full and happy lives, but almost always live longer than their roaming cousins.

When riding in a car, a cat should always be in a sturdy carrying case so he cannot jump out of a suddenly opened door or window (see Chapter 2, for a discussion of types of carrying cases). When secured with a seat belt, a carrying case may help prevent serious injury in case of a car accident.

Outdoor cats are often injured by cars in adifferent fashion. On a cold night a cat will sometimes get underneath a car hood to sleep on top of the warm engine. When the engine is started in the morning, the cat can be severely injured by the fan and engine belts.

Kittens and cats are especially prone to traumatic injury due to falls from windows. Known as the “highrise syndrome,” this can occur in the country or suburbs as well as a city apartment. A fall from a second- story window onto a flagstone path or tiled terrace can be just as damaging as one from a fourth-floor apartment window. Cats and kittens are particularly apt to become fascinated with an insect or bird flying by and forget where they are. Neither kittens nor grown cats should ever be left alone in an upstairs room with open, unscreened windows. Window bars do little to deter a cat, by the way, as most cats can squeeze right through them.

A study of the records of “highrise” cats admitted to the Bobst Hospital of The Animal Medical Center in New York City revealed some very interesting facts about falling cats. The most serious injuries and the highest mortality rates occurred in cats who fell between five and nine floors. Cats who fell four floors or less and cats who fell ten or more floors had less serious injuries. Cats falling from lower floors are not falling as fast as cats falling from greater than five floors. After five floors, it is predictable that a falling cat has reached terminal velocity— that is, there will be no further increase in speed no matter how great the distance. It appears that cats falling from ten floors or greater have time to right themselves and fall in a position similar to parachutists in free fall, with the legs spread out to the side and the body parallel to the ground. When a cat hits the ground in this position, much of the shock is absorbed by his flexible rib cage and abdomen. The most serious injury in “highrise” cats is pneumothorax (collapsed lungs with free air in the chest cavity). This is an emergency; the air must be removed by a veterinarian to allow the lungs to re-expand. But it is very possible to save a cat who has fallen great distances. Two cats who survived in New York City fell thirty-two and forty-six floors.

Kittens’curiosity can also get them into trouble if they dart, unseen, into open closets, bureau drawers, and other spaces where they can become trapped. Refrigerators and clothes dryers are also hazardous; young kittens, especially, often climb into them and can suffocate or be killed if they are not discovered. Some adult cats never outgrow the tendency to get into small spaces; not only should owners be aware of this, but anycaretakers should be told always to check to see where a cat is before turning on the dryer or leaving the house.


Cats are not as subject to accidental poisoning as dogs because they are apt to be more choosy about what they eat. But there are exceptions. Kittens’curiosity may lead them to sample something an adult cat would not, so owners should be especially careful to keep any harmful substances out of their reach. Again, it is important to remember cat’s ability to reach things, so any potentially poisonous substances should not only be put away, but must be securely closed.

Many common household chemicals are poisonous to cats as well as humans, but most do not appeal to cats because of their foul smell or taste. An exception to this is antifreeze, which has a sweetish taste that is irresistible to cats. Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol, a highly toxic chemical fatal to cats. Antifreeze should be kept in tightly closed containers, and extreme care needs to be taken that no radiator fluid containing antifreeze has leaked onto a driveway or garage floor. This is especially important for an indoor-outdoor cat, but even an indoor-only cat may venture into an attached garage. A cat that is suspected of ingesting antifreeze needs immediate veterinary care to prevent kidney failure and eventual death. A safer antifreeze made with propylene glycol is now available commercially. Pet owners may want to consider using it as an alternative.

Rat poison is another insidious danger for cats. Although they are not apt to eat the poison itself, they can be poisoned if they catch and bite or eat a poisoned mouse or rat. Rat poisons contain a substance called warfarin, or similar chemicals, that interferes with a cat’s blood-clotting ability and blocks the production of vitamin K. A cat that has ingested rat poison may become anemic, have trouble breathing, suffer from nosebleeds, internal bleeding, and bruising. Prompt treatment with vitamin K injections and blood transfusions will usually help.

Cats are particularly sensitive to medications and can suffer from drug intoxication if they eat or drink human medications, especially those containing acetaminophen. A cat who has ingested acetaminophen doses as small as a simple pill may develop methemoglobinemia, a condition in which blood hemoglobin is changed so that it doesn’t carry oxygen.

Poisoned cats will exhibit difficult breathing, dark blue tongue and mucous membranes, and a swollen face. Immediate treatment is necessary to prevent fatality. No medication is safe to give to a cat without veterinary supervision.

Cats often play with, and chew, houseplants and will play with fallen berries and leaves. However, plant poisoning is usually not a serious problem because the bitter or foul taste of most plants prevents a cat from ingesting a great deal. The greatest problem can be a potentially dangerous swelling of the mucous membranes of a cat’s mouth and throat. Dieffenbachia, or dumbcane, contains a particularly large amount of a substance that can cause swelling of the mucous membranes, and mistletoe and holly berries can make a cat quite sick if he eats enough of them. Japanese yew can be fatal to cats and members of the lily family can cause kidney failure.

If a kitten or cat is known to have eaten anything potentially poisonous, an owner should immediately call a veterinarian. If a veterinarian cannot be reached, call the ASPCA National Animal Poison Control Center at 1-800-548-2423.This center is manned by veterinarians and board-certified toxicologists and is open twenty-four hours a day, every day. A $30 consultation fee is payable by credit card.

If possible, an owner should have information available about the substance ingested. Immediate action can often prevent permanent health damage and even death. For free nonemergency information about pesticides concerning both animals and people, call The National Pesticide Telecommunications Network (NPTN) at 1-800-858-7378. At this number, graduate scientists will answer inquiries about lawn-care and gardening products, pestcontrol products, and so forth, as they might affect both pets and people. This service, available from 6:30 A.M. to 4:30 P.M., Pacific time, seven days a week, excluding holidays, is a cooperative effort of Oregon State University and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. See also “Drug Poisoning/Intoxication”, and Appendix A.

Heat Prostration

The most frequent reason a cat suffers from heat prostration is because he is left in a carrying case in a parked car during warm weather. On a sunny day when the temperature is in the seventies, it takes only a few minutes of sunshine on the car for the interior to heat up to over a hundred degrees, even if the windows are partially open. The poor ventilation in a carrying case combined with the heat in the car leads to heat prostration, which develops very quickly in cats because of their small size and inefficient means of cooling their bodies. The only way cats have to cool themselves down is by panting to allow moisture to evaporate from their mouths.

A cat may also suffer from heat prostration if he is closed in a small, hot, poorly ventilated room. Brachycephalic cats are especially prone to heat prostration because of the malformation of their faces and noses.

If a cat does appear to have difficulty breathing, or collapses from the heat, he must be rushed to a veterinarian immediately in order to save his life. More about heat prostration.

Some Feline Medical Emergencies

As we said above, an ongoing illness can develop into an emergency for various reasons. A severe medical problem that occurs suddenly is also an emergency situation. Following are some commonly occurring feline medical emergencies. In most instances there are no effective home first aid steps that can or should be taken, and prompt veterinary care is necessary.



When a cat is passing normal stools or diarrhea containing streaks or flecks of blood, it is not a severe emergency. If, however, a cat passes a lot of blood rectally, veterinary attention should be sought immediately.

There is no first aid for serious blood loss in the stool.


Bloody urine is usually a sign of a urinary tract infection such as bacterial cystitis, and is not a serious emergency. If the urine is very dark or blood clots are passed, it is a sign of profuse bleeding, which requires immediate veterinary attention. There is no first aid for serious blood loss in the urine.


If fluid is being vomited, vomiting is infrequent, or there are only flecks or streaks of blood in the vomitus, it is not a serious emergency. If, however, there is a profuse amount of blood thrown up or if there are blood clots present, it can indicate serious bleeding in a cat’s stomach.

There is no first aid for this condition and immediate veterinary help is necessary. Oral medication should not be given if a cat is vomiting blood.


Bruising can be difficult for an owner to recognize because of a cat’s haircoat. If there are purple splotches on a cat’s stomach it can be a sign of a clotting disorder. Bleeding from the nose can also be very serious and can occur from a clotting disorder, possibly from rat poison. Small purple or red spots on the insides of a cat’s ears or on his gums may indicate a low platelet count, or some other type of bleeding disorder. A cat can bleed into internal cavities, such as the chest, or abdomen, which can cause severe problems. Bruising of any sort should be considered serious and veterinary care sought.

Breathing Problems

If a cat has difficulty breathing he may be suffering from feline bronchial asthma, a condition very similar to human asthma. This can be the result of an allergic reaction to some airborne pollen, dust from the environment or cat litter, and so forth. It can be a serious or life- threatening emergency and veterinary care should begin immediately.

Asthma in cats can be controlled but never cured completely. Cats with asthma usually have a history of coughing, so owners should pay attention to this rather uncommon symptom in cats.

Whenever a cat is having difficulty breathing it should be considered a severe emergency. Breathing difficulty can be caused by cardiomyopathy(see below), feline infectious peritonitis (FIP —), pneumonia (see below), or a serious chest injury that produces pneumothorax. If a cat has had a serious chest injury such as a fall, being hit by a car, or an invasive chest wound, he will have great difficulty breathing and may have bluish mucous membranes (cyanosis) as well. This is a severe emergency that requires immediate veterinary help. Cyanosis is a sign of insufficient oxygen.

Accidents Medical Emergencies (Part 2)