10 Signs Your Cat is Having a Veterinary Emergency

Dr. Hannah Godfrey, BVetMed, MRCVS

Doctor listening to heart of gray cat on exam table

When you have a feline family member, it’s natural to want to do everything you can to look after them well and keep them safe and healthy. Unfortunately, the chances are high that you will face a situation that could be an emergency at some point in your cat’s life. 

Knowing how to distinguish true, time-dependent emergencies from milder illnesses and injuries is very important to ensure that you seek veterinary help in an appropriate timeframe. 

How to decide if your cat needs to see a veterinarian right away

Regardless of how scary or distressing symptoms might appear to us as pet parents, some symptoms are more serious than others. The list below includes symptoms and conditions that are considered critical for your cat.

If you think your cat is suffering from any of these symptoms, it’s essential to contact a veterinarian immediately so that they can be examined and treated promptly. 

1. Straining to urinate

If you have a male cat straining to pass urine but not managing to pass, this could indicate a blocked urethra (the tube that carries urine out of the body from the bladder). If grit, mucus, or a painful spasm causes a blockage to the urethra the bladder becomes more and more full. Eventually, it can burst (rupture) or cause permanent kidney damage.  This condition can become life-threatening very quickly.  Often make cats are seen going in and out of the litterbox, often vocalizing loudly, but unable to pass any urine.  In later stages, cats become very lethargic and are unable to move around.

Be careful not to confuse the straining with constipation, which can cause similar straining behavior. Always contact your veterinarian quickly if you think your cat might have a urinary blockage.

2. Bleeding

Severe blood loss is always an emergency – whether from a wound, from the mouth, or within vomit or diarrhea. When faced with a bleeding cat, it is easy to panic, and it can look like there is more blood than there is.

Take a breath and try to quantify the amount of blood calmly – would it fill a coffee cup? Being able to explain to your veterinarian a rough estimate of how much blood there is will help decide whether it is an emergency and assist the veterinarian in beginning preparation for treatment like a blood transfusion if required.

3. Straining during labor

If your cat is having kittens and labor has started, but she has been straining continuously for thirty minutes or more with no kitten produced, this is an emergency. It could mean that a kitten has become lodged on the way out of the womb, forming an obstruction. 

If left without veterinary intervention, one or more of the kittens could die, and the womb could rupture, causing life-threatening risks to the mother’s health. However, remember that there can be significant gaps between kittens in normal labor, so this is not an emergency if there is no straining.

4. Collapse

If your cat collapses and cannot stand, you must contact a veterinarian immediately as it could mean a problem with their heart, lungs, brain, or blood circulation.

5. Struggling to breathe

Oddly, cats don’t tend to make a big fuss when they are in breathing distress. They are unlikely to make any noise and often hide. Signs that your cat is struggling to breathe include:

  • An elongated neck.
  • Laying on their front with their elbows out.
  • Increased movement of their chest.
  • Breathing through an open mouth (panting).
  • You may also notice blue-tinged gums.

If your cat is showing any of these signs of breathing distress, it is an emergency.

6. Vomiting

Severe vomiting (multiple times in an hour) could leave your cat dehydrated, as well as suggesting a gut blockage or other serious health condition. Therefore, if your cat suddenly starts vomiting excessively or they cannot keep any food or water down, you should contact your veterinary clinic promptly. 

7. Pain

Severe pain is an emergency as, of course, every cat should be protected from unnecessary suffering. However, as hard as it is to see our furry friends in any discomfort, it is crucial to use veterinary services appropriately so that they are available for life-threatening emergencies. 

8. Walking on three legs

If your cat has an injury preventing them from weight-bearing on one or more of their legs, this could indicate a fracture. This is an emergency due to the pain and because assessment and possible realignment of any fracture need to happen promptly to ensure the best healing. 

Therefore, if you suspect a fracture or other severe trauma to your cat’s body, you should contact a veterinarian without delay.

9. Dragging back legs

If your cat suddenly starts dragging their hind legs and crying loudly, this could suggest that a blood clot has lodged within a vessel, blocking the blood supply to the legs. In this situation, veterinary intervention should be sought as soon as possible to try to prevent irreversible damage or blood clots elsewhere.

10. Neurological signs

Any head trauma, sudden change in coordination or responsiveness, or repeated seizures is a veterinary emergency. Seizures lasting longer than five minutes are also an emergency.

However, just one seizure is not an emergency as long as your cat stops within a couple of minutes and recovers fully afterward.

What signs can I look for to decide if it is an emergency?

The following checklist should help you determine whether your cat needs a veterinarian immediately or whether it can wait. Advising your veterinarian of your assessment will also help them to prepare for your visit if required.

  • Check their gums – under normal circumstances, your cat’s gums should be pink in color. If they are blue-ish purple, very pale pink, or white, this suggests that they need urgent veterinary care.
  • Check for a skin tent – Lift the skin on the back of your cat’s neck (their scruff) then gently release it. If it falls quickly back into place, then your cat is not dehydrated, but if it is slow to fall back into place or stays where you’ve pulled it, they are dehydrated and need to see a veterinarian as an emergency. 
  • Check their breathing – If your cat’s breathing is faster than usual or seems to require more effort, this is a sign of breathing distress. Open-mouth breathing and sucking in of their abdomen as they breathe are also indications that they are struggling to breathe, so contact a veterinarian for an emergency appointment.
  • Check their awareness – Call your cat’s name or try to get their attention. If they are not as responsive as usual or have lost consciousness, this is an emergency. 

How can I help in an emergency?

Take a breath

You can’t help your cat or the veterinarian well if you are panicking. Staying calm is very important and will allow you to check for further dangers, assess your cat, and contact the veterinarian efficiently, if necessary. If you find it hard to stay calm in emergencies, a pet first aid course may help you feel more prepared.

Assess your cat

Ensure you are in a safe place where no further harm can come to your cat or yourself. If your cat is in pain or feeling unwell, they may lash out, so approach them gently and cautiously. Check their gum color, hydration, breathing pattern, and responsiveness, and assess any blood loss. This will give you an idea of whether it is a true emergency and ensure you have information ready to pass on to your veterinarian. 

Once you have determined that your cat needs an emergency assessment by a veterinarian, call them immediately. If you are unsure whether your dog’s condition is an emergency, it is best to contact your veterinarian for advice. 

Apply first aid

If your cat is bleeding, apply pressure to the wound or just above the wound with clean fabric like a towel or t-shirt. You can continue this pressure until you arrive at the veterinary clinic. This will help reduce the amount of blood lost.

Protect Them

If your cat is uncoordinated, behaving abnormally, or having seizures, make sure that they can’t cause themselves an injury by falling down the stairs or bumping into furniture. Once the area is safe, you could film the episode with your phone, time the seizure, or even write a description of what happened to show your veterinarian.

Can it wait?

If your cat is not feeling well, it can be stressful and worrying, and it’s natural to fear the worst. However, it is essential not to allow this fear to make you avoid seeing a veterinarian since no emergency is likely to improve without their help. 

There is a severe risk of death, life-changing consequences, or poor welfare for your cat in an emergency. Without treatment, your cat’s chances of a full recovery are greatly reduced, as are their chances of survival. Therefore, if you think your cat’s condition could be an emergency, you must get them checked as soon as you can. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Common cat-emergency questions

Is a cat coughing an emergency?

There are many causes of coughing in cats, and some are emergencies while others are not. The most important things to determine are whether the heart or lungs are compromised in any way. By assessing the previous checklist, you will be able to decide whether it is an emergency. 

If the function of the heart or lungs is compromised, your cat’s gum color will be pale pink or have a blue or purple tinge. Similarly, if the lungs are compromised, the breathing pattern will be faster, shallower, or with more effort, and your cat may be breathing with an open mouth.

Is a cat vomiting an emergency?

If your cat is vomiting so frequently that they are not keeping any food or water down, they are at risk of dehydration. You can check their hydration by checking for a skin tent as described above. If you think your cat is dehydrated, contact your veterinarian for emergency assistance.

Is there a 911 for pets?

Although there is no 911 for pets, you should call your normal veterinary clinic if you have a veterinary emergency. If they do not cover nights and weekends, their answerphone greeting will give you the details of the nearest emergency service provider. 

If you would like to know the details of your clinic’s out-of-hours service in advance of an emergency, to feel prepared, give them a call, and they will be able to provide you with their contact details.

Is a cat with a fever an emergency?

A cat with a fever is not usually an emergency, although a veterinarian should see them within a reasonable timeframe. As long as their gum color, hydration, and breathing are unaffected and remain stable, they can wait until the morning or the next working day.

Is blood in a cat’s stool an emergency?

Although it looks serious, it is quite common for cats to have some mucus or blood in their stools. The lining of the gut is full of many blood vessels, so small amounts of inflammation or straining can cause these vessels to burst and blood to appear in the feces. 

The majority of causes of blood in the stools are relatively minor. However, if your cat is dehydrated, has pale gums, is bleeding or bruised elsewhere, seek veterinary advice immediately.

Is a cat bite abscess an emergency?

Cats often fight or get bullied by other cats, and wounds from teeth or claws can commonly become an abscess. Although there is some discomfort associated with a cat bite abscess, and they can develop a high temperature, as long as they are stable, this is not an emergency. Veterinary assessment can be delayed until the next morning or the next working day.

Common misconceptions

In the heat of the moment, conditions that are not life-threatening can easily be perceived to be an emergency. The conditions below are examples of symptoms that can appear serious but are not urgent:

Heat or ‘season’

If your female cat is in heat, she may yowl and vocalize as if she is in severe pain. She may also flop onto her side or stand in odd positions that you have never seen before. Understandably, pet parents often assume their cat is in pain when they behave this way, but this is normal behavior.

A single seizure 

Although you should speak to your veterinarian if your cat has any seizures, it is not recommended to attempt to move them while they are seizing. As long as the episode lasts less than five minutes and your cat gradually returns to their usual self, your veterinarian may decide to book them in for a check over at the next available routine appointment.

If your cat continues to seize, having multiple seizures, or not coming around between episodes, they must be seen by a veterinarian immediately, as they can overheat and get permanent brain damage.

Conclusion

Being a pet parent is rewarding, but there are moments of anxiety and stress when they are injured or unwell. If you remain calm and follow the above advice, you should be able to confidently decide the best course of action for your cat. However, if you are unsure, never delay getting your veterinarian’s expert opinion.