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Emergency Situations In Cats

Difficulty Breathing

Straining to Urinate


Sudden Onset of Lameness or Inability to Walk


Intractable Vomiting

Bleeding/Obvious Hemorrhage

Sudden Blindness

Sudden Onset of a Wobbly Gait (ataxia)

Abdominal Problems

Known Ingestion of a Poison <

Because cats are known for their often subtle or vague showing of signs of illness, it is not uncommon for some emergency situations in cats not to be recognized as such by owners or, worse yet, to go unnoticed. Owners always want to do what is best for their cat, but don't always know which situations warrant an immediate trip to the veterinarian. In general, a "better safe than sorry" approach is recommended by most veterinarians. Below is a list of those conditions or situations, however, which almost universally fall under the title of "true emergency" and warrant a trip to the veterinarian right away.

Difficulty breathing

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Labored breathing can be seen with a variety of different feline ailments, including cardiac disease (heart failure), infections, trauma, pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), allergic bronchitis/asthma, foreign bodies, and cancer. All of these conditions are potentially life-threatening, especially when they have advanced to the point where the cat is exhibiting labored breathing. (In many of the earlier stages of these diseases, the cat's labored breathing may only be very subtle, in that it becomes most noticeable when the cat is stressed or if he or she exercises; thus, many cats in these early stages simply become more lethargic, because moving around much "taxes" their respiratory system, and thus owners in these earlier stages often don't notice any change in breathing patterns).

Straining to urinate

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As a general rule, straining to urinate is most urgent in male cats, who are more prone to developing complete urinary tract blockages, which are a life-threatening emergency. (This can occur in female cats, too, but is much less common than in males). Even in those cats who are straining to urinate but who do not have a partial or complete urinary tract blockage, the condition at the very least is extremely painful for the cat, and thus warrants urgent attention. It should be mentioned that because it can be difficult for an owner to differentiate between a cat struggling to defecate, which may not necessarily be an emergency, and one who is struggling to urinate, which is an emergency, immediate consultation with a veterinarian is important in any cat straining to eliminate.


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Any cat who has experienced known severe trauma, such as being hit by a car, falling from a high distance, etc. should see a veterinarian immediately, even if the cat appears perfectly normal after having experienced the trauma. The shock of trauma itself, as well as internal injuries and/or bleeding that is not immediately obvious to owners, are potentially life-threatening to the cat and warrant immediate veterinary attention. (Often owners are most concerned about broken limbs, etc. These are certainly medical issues that need to be addressed, too, and especially initially from a pain management point of view, but broken limbs as a general rule are not life-threatening as are the more serious internal injuries, and systemic shock).

Sudden onset of lameness or inability to walk

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These conditions can be associated with trauma (fractures), bone infections, blood clots (usually from heart disease or high blood pressure), and even severe arthritis. In all cases, they are associated with tremendous pain for the cat. Additionally, they may also be life-threatening, especially if associated with blood clots.


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Seizures in cats can be associated with primary epilepsy, infections, tumors, toxins, and metabolic conditions (such as severe electrolyte disturbances, liver or kidney disease, low blood sugar). A seizure is defined as any convulsion or spasm (including disorientation, lack of appropriate recognition of the cat's surroundings, twitching, etc.).

Intractable vomiting

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Intractable vomiting (vomiting several times in a day) can be seen with a variety of metabolic conditions, several of which may potentially be either life-threatening, painful, or both. Causes include acute (sudden onset) kidney failure, intestinal blockage (from tumor, foreign body, etc.), liver disease, severe infections, toxins/poisoning, and cancer. Persistent vomiting warrants urgent consultation with a veterinarian, especially if there is blood in the vomitus.

Bleeding/obvious hemorrhage

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Bleeding from any body opening, the eye, or the ear may indicate a serious problem. It is also dangerous if blood is pulsing from a cut (indicating that an artery has been wounded). Immediate pressure should be applied in this situation, and the cat should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Sudden blindness

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Sudden blindness in cats can be associated with high blood pressure (which has subsequently caused the retinas of the eye to detach), optic neuritis (inflammation or infection of the optic nerve, which is the major nerve to the eye) or glaucoma. Immediate veterinary attention is vital, these conditions may be reversible if treatment is begun right away.

Sudden onset of a wobbly gait (ataxia)

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Causes of this condition include inner or middle ear infections, neurologic disease, metabolic conditions (kidneys, liver, electrolytes), poisoning. Seek veterinary attention soon!

Abdominal problems

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A cat who paws at his or her abdomen, adopts a "praying" position, or lies on the ground with its legs tucked underneath its body, (especially if associated with lack of appetite, hiding, vomiting, etc), may be experiencing abdominal pain. Such signs may indicate organ rupture, foreign body, abdominal bleeding, intestinal tract blockage, etc. These conditions may be immediately life-threatening; additionally, pain management needs to be instituted as soon as possible.

Known ingestion of a poison

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If an owner is unsure whether something ingested is poisonous, contact your veterinarian immediately. You may also consider contacting Animal Poison Control at 1-888-426-4435. Toxic agents to cats include any household chemical, antifreeze, and many plants (including any member of the lily family, these are especially toxic to the kidneys of cats). Please read our library article on poisonous/toxic plants.

If your cat is showing any of the above signs, we urge you to seek veterinary care immediately. And again, if in doubt, we recommend the "better safe than sorry" approach, and suggest that you seek veterinary care. Cats, as noted above, are well known for their ability to hide their illnesses, often until their conditions are life-threateningly advanced. Even extremely subtle behavior changes, though not necessarily true emergencies, are often associated with illness in cats. For these reasons, we urge owners, who know their cats best, to seek veterinary attention whenever their cat's behavior or appearance seems unusual, and immediately in the case of any of the above eleven situations (or when in doubt!).

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