The Veterinarians’ Guide to Your Cat’s Symptoms: Accidents Medical Emergencies
Cats do not suffer from cholesterol problems or heart attacks as people do. The most commonly seen feline heart disease is disease of the heart muscle and can take several forms. A cat can have cardiomyopathy for years before symptoms surface. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) causes the heart to fail suddenly. A cat will develop fluid in his lungs (pulmonary edema) and will have difficulty breathing. Dilated (congestive) cardiomyopathy often creates a buildup of fluid in a cat’s chest cavity outside his lungs, causing the lungs to collapse. Cats with heart failure will be very quiet, reluctant to move, and may exhibit difficulty breathing. These cats require immediate veterinary help.
Collapse, or unconsciousness, can be due to a number of conditions that are described in this chapter such as: shock following a traumatic injury; an ongoing systemic or metabolic disease; severe blood loss; difficulty breathing; poisoning; anemia; or seizures. In some cases, a cat may even lose consciousness. In all cases, a cat that has collapsed or become unconscious must be evaluated by a veterinarian right away.
Cats do not suffer from diarrhea as frequently as dogs do. If a cat has an occasional bout of diarrhea it is usually not serious and may be the result of injudicious eating of prey, for instance. Exceptions are bloody diarrhea (see above), if it lasts for longer than twenty-four hours, and/or if the diarrhea is accompanied by vomiting or other symptoms of illness such as fever, loss of appetite, and signs of pain or illness. Then it may be a sign of poisoning, or a systemic illness or infection.
Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, usually occurs in cats that are undergoing insulin treatment for diabetes mellitus (see Glossary), and is characterized by several different signs. A cat with this condition may be weak and confused. He may not respond to his name, and pace and wander aimlessly If hypoglycemia is allowed to go on for too long, seizures and eventually coma will follow.
A cat with hypoglycemia may have an acute onset of seizures or convulsions. During a seizure a cat will roll over on his side, make rapid jaw movements, salivate profusely, let go of bowel and bladder, and shake his limbs violently.
With hypoglycemia, first aid treatment may help. Honey, syrup, or sugar water may reverse the problem for a cat that begins to become confused or weak, but only if it is given at the first sign of a problem, before seizures or collapse occur. Approximately one tablespoon of something containing sugar should be spooned or dropped into a cat’s mouth, a little at a time. Do not try to give anything orally if the cat is unconscious! Even with proper treatment there may sometimes be brain damage. A veterinary checkup should be given once the cat is stabilized.
Kittens who are not eating may also become hypoglycemic. Never allow a small kitten to be fasted for a prolonged period. Pneumonia Unlike with other animals, pneumonia can occur in cats without any preceding symptoms such as coughing. The first signs of pneumonia in a cat can be severe, life-threatening, labored breathing, collapse, and bluish mucous membranes (cyanosis). This is an emergency condition requiring immediate veterinary help.
Pyometra is a surgical emergency that occurs in older, unspayed, female cats. It is an infection of the uterus and has variable signs and symptoms. Some cats may show only a gradually enlarging abdomen, while others may also show signs of systemic illness, including anorexia, fever, depression, vomiting, or diarrhea. Surgical removal of the uterus is the only treatment.
This is a condition arising from a raging infection in a cat’s chest cavity. A cat withpyothorax is extremely sick and probably is running a fever. Because of fluid in the chest cavity, he will have severe difficulty breathing (dyspnea) and will be very depressed.
The infection is caused by either a penetrating wound or a systemic spreading of bacteria in a cat’s bloodstream due to a simple bite or puncture wound. This is a life-threatening condition and requires immediate veterinary intervention.
Seizures are not as common in cats as they are in dogs, but they can occur and are usually brought about by a medical condition such as hypoglycemia (see above), or an inflammatory disease of the brain.
Idiopathic (no known cause) epilepsy is also possible. If a seizure is short and the cat then returns to normal it is not a serious emergency. However, if a cat has several continuous seizures that last a long time (status epilecticus), or is having multiple seizures (sequence clustering) he may die or have permanent brain damage due to hypoxia (loss of oxygen to the tissues). Hospitalization and intravenous administration of various anticonvulsants are necessary— this is an extremely serious condition. An owner’s detailed history of the onset of seizures is invaluable to a veterinarian in making a diagnosis and decision about how to treat the underlying cause of a seizure.
A cat that is straining to urinate may be suffering from feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD, formerly known as FUS). Other signs of this disease may be frequent licking of the genital region, bloody urine, and urinating outside the litter pan. Some cats show no initial symptoms of FLUTD and simply become very ill. If the urethra becomes obstructed the cat will be in obvious pain, may vomit and lose his appetite, and will show signs of straining to urinate. Male cats are affected more often than females. If it is not treated promptly, the condition may lead to a dangerous level of potassium elevation in a cat’s body, which can cause heart problems and death.
The cause of FLUTD in cats is still being debated. It does not appear to be caused by an infection and may be related to a dietary mineral imbalance, urine too high in pH (alkaline urine), and/or some inherent predisposing factor. There are prescription diets on the market that can help prevent recurrences of this problem. Sometimes a surgical procedure called a perineal urethrostomy to shorten, straighten, and widen a male cat’s urethra is necessary to stop the problem.
All cats vomit occasionally and some vomit two or three times a week without signs of illness. If a cat vomits but seems to feel well otherwise it is usually not an emergency. If the vomiting is preceded by retching and the resulting vomitus is tubelike and contains hair, it is a hair ball and can be safely ignored (for steps to help prevent hair balls). If, however, there is a lot of blood in the vomitus (see “Vomiting Blood,” above), if it persists for more than twenty-four hours or is accompanied by diarrhea, fever, abdominal distension, obvious discomfort or pain, weakness, loss of appetite, or listlessness, it may be a symptom of a number of different conditions. Veterinary help should be sought right away in any of these cases. If a cat vomits frequently and is losing weight, the problem should also be investigated.
Accidental Feline Emergencies
In general, the best treatment an owner can provide for a cat suffering from an accidental injury is to get him to a veterinarian right away. It is foolish and dangerous to waste precious time trying to give emergency first aid, and often whatever measures are taken won’t help and may harm a cat. If there are appropriate first aid steps, they are included here.
Because a cat’s blood volume makes up only about 6 percent of his total body weight, blood loss is of particular concern in cats. Bleeding or hemorrhaging from any part of a cat’s body is an emergency whether it is acute, profuse bleeding, or chronic, continuous blood loss. The best way to determine if the bleeding is serious is to check for signs of shock (see above) or anemia.
Bleeding from the Nose or Mouth
This can be life-threatening if bleeding is profuse. Cold compresses or ice packs can slow the bleeding but are very difficult to apply.
Emergency veterinary treatment should be sought immediately.
Bleeding from the Skin
Cuts or wounds on a cat’s skin surface will cause some bleeding although it is usually not severe. If a wound is deep it can puncture a vein or blood vessel beneath the skin surface and bleeding will be more profuse. This is most likely to happen in cats if the wound is in the neck orleg area (see below). Apply pressure by hand to slow the bleeding using a clean cloth or bandage (see illustration, below). If the area can be bandaged, a compression bandage should be used (see illustration, below).
Foot and Leg Bleeding
Cats walk lightly and do not often cut their feet. But if they do, lacerations of the footpads bleed a great deal. Cat’s footpads consist of spongy tissue and even after bleeding has stopped, cuts often bleed again as soon as a cat steps on his foot. To prevent continuous blood loss from a footpad laceration, a pressure bandage should be used.
More serious, spurting arterial bleeding can occur if a cat cuts the small artery that runs up the leg right behind the footpads. This is not a common injury in cats, but it can occur if a cat is caught and bitten by a dog, for instance, or is hit by a moving vehicle. This type of bleeding should be stopped with a pressure bandage placed around the entire foot and lower leg. The use of tourniquets is not advised. They can easily cause the loss of a limb due to inadequate blood supply and do not stop bleeding as well as pressure.
A cat can break any one of the hundreds of bones in his body. A cat with a suspected fracture should be kept quiet, treated for shock (see above), and moved as little as possible. Pick the cat up by his chest or stomach and place him in a carrying case, carton, or even a clean litter tray, and take him to the veterinarian (see page 17). Splints or other means of immobilizing an injured limb usually cause more discomfort and pain to a cat than leaving it alone.
Cats are rarely burned with fire, but they can fall into a tub of scalding water. More often, they can be burned when scalding water or hot grease falls on them. This can cause diffuse burns that can be extremely serious. No first aid is recommended, but prompt medical treatment is necessary.
Cats should never be given any medication without a veterinarian’s
advice. Even drugs that are generally considered safe for other species, such as aspirin, acetaminophen, tranquilizers, and so forth can cause serious problems in cats. Cats are not apt to swallow anything unfamiliar, but if a cat should swallow any human medications or drugs such as marijuana, hashish, or hallucino-genics, it is an emergency. If an owner is sure a cat has ingested medicine or other drugs that are not caustic, she should get the material out of the cat quickly by inducing vomiting. Hydrogen peroxide given orally with a spoon will cause a cat to vomit and will not harm him. The cat should be seen by a veterinarian right away to be sure no drug remains in his body and to check for any side effects. See also Appendix A, page 145.
Kittens, which may chew electric wires, are much more apt to suffer from electrocution than adult cats. Electrocution may be mild and there may be very few signs, but it usually results in shock and significant pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), causing labored, difficult breathing (dyspnea). Cyanosis (blue mucous membranes) may be present, as may shock (see above). A kitten must be treated right away with diuretics and oxygen to save his life. If an owner comes home and finds a kitten lying on his side unable to move and having difficulty breathing, she should suspect electrocution. This is true even if visible burns are not obvious in the mouth or on the tongue.
Cats’ eyes are often injured in fights with other cats. Any eye injury must be treated quickly and appropriately to prevent permanent damage. No first aid, such as putting water on the eye, should be attempted as it will upset the delicate eye membranes and will do more harm than good.
We spoke about heat prostration earlier in this chapter. Any cat that regularly has difficulty breathing such as an extremely brachycephalic cat, one that is severely overweight, or a cat with a heart problem will be at greater risk from heat prostration if he becomes overheated or overexerts.
If a cat is suffering from heat prostration he will breathe noisily with his tongue hanging out and may have thick foam and saliva in his mouth. His body temperature will be very high and he may be in shock (see “Shock,” page 5 5). It is imperative to quickly cool a cat that is suffering from heat prostration. It is all right to try to cool a cat by misting him all over with a spray bottle, but it is best to rush him to the veterinarian as quickly as possible so that he can be cooled and receive medication to prevent brain damage from the heat and hypoxia (deficiency of oxygen). If the cat has blue mucous membranes, there may be an airway obstruction from thick saliva in the back of his throat. If an owner can safely open the cat’s mouth and clear the saliva with a paper towel or gauze square, it may save the cat’s life. The leading cause of death from heat prostration is cardiovascular collapse, shock, and a condition known as DIC, a bleeding disorder caused by prolonged excess body heat. DIC often starts with bleeding from the nose and progresses to profuse hemorrhaging. Once it has begun, there is usually nothing that can be done to save the cat.