Have you ever heard your beloved kitty howling in the middle of the night? Do you know the difference between a benign deep purr and breathing issues? Has your kitty been vomiting on/off and you wonder if it’s a simple hairball or something more ominous?
Many cat owners have struggled with the decision to bring their cat in when something seems off and while sometimes waiting can be the best bet (both for your sanity and for saving your kitty the anxiety of a visit to the cat vet), there are times when your kitty needs to be seen immediately. As cat clinic employees, far too often we have seen kitties who initially had seemingly minor health issues that later developed into permanent & chronic conditions by the time we saw them. Since we all have busy lives and many of us have a limited budget, the decision to bring Fluffy in is not always obvious. Here are some of the most common feline emergencies where Fluffy truly needs immediate care:
- Your fur baby’s breathing is “off”
While a not uncommon complaint, “my cat is breathing funny”, the actual appearance of breathing difficulties can vary dramatically and includes a subtly deeper full body shudder when purring, heaving sides, minor raspy noises while breathing, open-mouth breathing, coughing, wheezing, etc. While some of these apparent breathing issues are more or less serious from a veterinary care standpoint, all breathing issues in cats can be potentially deadly and require an immediate visit to your veterinarian. Remember, like you, your beloved feline can only live minutes without sufficient air. The causes of these breathing difficulties can range from simple infections to heart or lung issues but breathing issues are always to be taken seriously.
- Your male cat is frequenting the box or straining to urinate
A male that is struggling to urinate is either blocked or probably on its way to blocking (blocking is when mucus, uroliths (mineral stones), tissue or crystals “block” your kitty’s urethra). Since males have a generally narrower urethra they are at much higher risk of blocking. A cat that blocks long enough can accumulate urine in the bladder to a point that the urine puts pressure back on the kidneys causing potentially permanent damage. It’s not uncommon that blocked male cats (caught early) still have some permanent residual kidney damage. If you spot your male frequenting the box, straining or leaving small urine spots/clumps in the litter, your cat really needs to be seen immediately. This is not to say that females exhibiting the same behaviors should be overlooked! Females are more prone to urinary tract infections (UTIs) and UTIs in general can develop into pyelonephritis (infection of the kidneys) leading (again) to possibly permanent kidney damage. While in most cases an overnight wait won’t probably hurt your female kitty, she should see the vet sooner rather than later.
- Kitty won’t stop vomiting, can’t keep food or water down
This is a very serious indication that your cat may have a foreign body or bowel obstruction. This is such a common occurrence in young cats that many vets will assume that the young cat (<typically less than 4 years old) has a probable foreign body since other causes of severe vomiting in young cats (without a known toxin, etc.) are so uncommon. While some foreign bodies and obstructions can work through on their own (imagine a huge hairball), others can bind and bunch up the intestines (most common with long linear objects like string, tinsel, etc.) causing irritation and eventual death (necrosis) of the intestines. These foreign bodies need immediate surgical intervention to remove them and repair (if possible) damage to the digestive tract. Suspected foreign bodies are nerve-wracking for both the veterinarian and the owner as it is not always obvious that a foreign body is present by x-rays. Your trusted cat vet doesn’t want to operate unnecessarily and nor do you want to be saddled with a large bill but in this case waiting too long can be deadly. You can help your vet by being vigilant about the types of materials your cat plays with and keeping good stock of what and where the “toys” are. Just keep in mind that these “toys” can include things like strings, shoelaces, string bikinis (yes it has happened in our cat clinic), string toys, etc. Being observant in this case can mean the difference between life, death or unnecessary surgery.
- Things hurt
Cats are wonderful at hiding pain from us. Cats in even extreme pain (dental pain for example) will literally starve themselves and go into liver failure without so much as a howl, growl, etc. As they are predators, the weak get eaten, so when they are showing signs and symptoms of pain things are often very bad. Due to this, cats often merely hide or lay low even during serious trauma which can include injuries as overt as a car vs cat incident to things as minor as a single scratch (which has now become an infected abscess) from a neighborhood bully. More than a few vets have been awed by the survivorship exhibited by our cat patients and even more so awed by their disposition with such grave injuries. What this all means is that if your cat has signs of an injury, they should probably be seen immediately. Minutes count, especially when trauma is internal. Even if you overreact, don’t worry. Not reacting soon enough to even minor bites or scratches can lead to costly anesthesia and surgical wound draining/repair. On that note, at least a few times in the last year we have seen kitties with suspected abscesses and upon examination found a bot fly maggot (yep, even in Washington) happily living in the kitty.—Moral of the story is sometimes there is no overreaction, even when things aren’t life-or-death but they are just simply gross.
- Possible toxin exposure
Cats have unique physiology and are extremely sensitive to some “toxins”. Often these toxins are relatively benign (to you and me) items around the house like lilies or NSAIDS (drugs like aspirin or aleve) or also very toxic to us (antifreeze). Regardless, a commonality amongst many feline-toxic items is rapid kidney failure (acute renal disease). Minutes matter in these cases where quick treatment can save remaining kidney function. If you suspect exposure, err on the side of caution and you could literally be saving your cats life or adding decade(s) to their longevity.
Notes from the Practice Manager:
"Even as a cat clinic staff member, I too have waffled or procrastinated when I noticed a difference in the behavior of one of my cats. Even when it wasn’t a pressing veterinary emergency, almost always a cause was found. This has ranged from a problematic tooth (or teeth, thank you my beloved cat Opal for your love, companionship and annual dentals with extractions) to severe food allergies causing what looked like a foreign body. While these weren’t emergency veterinarian visit-worthy, my prior vigilance has spotted an early bladder infection in my other female cat (Onyx, 20 years old and still going strong with no renal disease) and definitively saved my cats pain and suffering. As your (our readers and cat clinic patients) practice manager, there are always resources available to you online (link) and by calling and speaking to me or one of our wonderful technicians. A phone call or e-mail with us can easily put your mind at ease as well as let us put in reminders to check on your kitty (have things gotten better, have you been watching?) or even just to see your kitty in our veterinary hospital for a quick and free weight check."
Notes from the veterinarian:
"Medically-speaking, if something seems off about your cat, he/she should be seen sooner rather than later. Most cats that exhibit behavioral changes without a known environmental cause do so for specific health reasons. Having said that, veterinary exams can add up pretty quickly but you can rest-assured that being medically vigilant and financially prudent don’t have to be mutually exclusive as there are simple things that you can do to catch a true problem early or help distinguish between something minor and something major. All of these simple steps revolve around being observant of your kitty’s habits including how active they are, how much they are eating and how much they are drinking. Even better, for the price of a coffee, you can get a scale that can accurately weigh your fur baby (as a tip try a baby scale from a local children’s consignment shop). Better yet, bring them in for a free weight check in the clinic. Keeping a notebook or digital record of your cat’s typical habits can be immensely helpful for both urgent veterinary needs as well as routine annual exams. Always remember that this list is not comprehensive and if you suspect a veterinary emergency, don't hesitate to call us 425-392-8770 f something isn't going right with your beloved fur baby."