Life-Threatening Emergencies

The best time to read this section is before an emergency arises. The first step to take when a cat is involved in a life-threatening situation is to dial the veterinarian's office, home, answering service, or an emergency clinic. Get help calmly and quickly.


Japanese yew, mountain laurel, lily of the valley, philodendron, dieffenbachia what do all of these ornamental plants have in common? Though all are beautiful, they all are potentially toxic when ingested, and cats are particularly susceptible. Fortunately, poisoning of cats by plants is relatively uncommon. Most outdoor cats have enough activity to keep them occupied, but bored house cats are somewhat more likely to chew on available plants.

When plant poisoning does occur, it may be a life-threatening emergency, requiring quick action if the cat is to survive.
The list of plants potentially dangerous to cats is long. Some of the more common plants, the signs of poisoning, and suggested treatment are summarized in Plants Poisionous To Cats. In addition to the specific treatments given, a few general principles should be remembered. First and foremost, get the poisonous material out of the cat. Take the plant away if the cat is caught in the act. in most cases, try to induce vomiting to get the offending plant material out of the stomach. Some easy ways to induce vomiting are the following:

1. Give I to 2 teaspoons of syrup of ipecac (may be repeated once in twenty minutes if needed)

2. Give 1 to 2 teaspoons of a 1:1 mix of hydrogen peroxide and water (repeat a few times at twentyminute intervals if needed).
     if the source of poison is unknown, take the cat and a sample of the vomitus to the veterinarian immediately.

Do not induce vomiting in the following cases:

•    Plants that cause throat irritation, such as Dumb Cane (dieffenbachia) or philodendron, will burn just as much coming back        up as they did going down, so it is safer to leave them in the stomach.

•    Two hours after eating, most of the poison has probably entered the intestines or passed into the bloodstream, so making        the animal vomit at that point does not help. If the cat is unconscious or semiconscious, chances are very good that it will        inhale the vomit and suffocate.

Once the cat has vomited, try to inactivate any poison that may be left in its system. A crushed activated charcoal tablet fed to the cat will adsorb (bind) to the toxins, so they can pass out of the body before being absorbed in the intestinal tract. This can be repeated several times at thirty-minute intervals. A less convenient but more effective way to orally administer activated charcoal is as a slurry. This can be quite messy, so make sure to administer in a bathtub or other easily cleaned area. Mix one gram of activated charcoal (either powdered form or crushed tablets) in each teaspoon of water. Then slowly give about one teaspoon of this mixture per pound body weight. Do not confuse activated charcoal tablets (purchased from the drugstore) with charcoal dog biscuits marketed for mouth odor or charcoal briquets for a barbecue. Do not give activated charcoal in addition to syrup of ipecac, even if the cat has vomited; the two bind together and inactivate each other. Induce the conscious cat to drink as much lukewarm milk or water as possible. This will help dilute the toxins in the gastrointestinal tract. Milk has a soothing, coating effect on the intestines. If necessary, feed liquids carefully with an eyedropper.

Evaluate the cat's general appearance. is it slipping into shock? Is it having trouble breathing? Keep the animal comfortable and warm. Give artificial respiration if necessary. (See SECTION: FIRST AID.)

In all cases, an immediate visit to the veterinarian is necessary to determine the severity of the poisoning, or the presence of secondary complications, or to administer specific antidotes.

Prevention. Undoubtedly the best treatment for plant poisoning is prevention. Keep poisonous plants hanging out of a cat's reach, or in a separate room that is off-limits to animals. In the warm months, outdoor plants can carry chemical poisons. Highly toxic herbicides and organophosphate pesticides on grass clippings can be deadly. (See "Chemical Poisoning".)


Fortunately, chemical poisoning is not a common occurrence among cats, possibly because of their finicky eating habits, which often prevent them from ingesting substances that are harmful. However, two other qualities get them into trouble with poisonous agents. Cats are curious and fastidious animals. Curiosity can lead them into situations that are better left alone, such as walking across a wet, freshly disinfected or waxed floor to look out the window, or scampering across a lawn that has recently been sprayed with weed killer to chase a leaf. Fastidiousness can cause them to lick off the disinfectant, wax, or weed killer, no matter how unpleasant the taste. This indirect ingestion can be responsible for chemical poisoning.

Cats also can be indirectly affected either by catching and eating rats or mice that have eaten poisoned bait or by walking through tracking powders that then are ingested during grooming. Most of the rodenticides marketed today use anticoagulant chemicals rather than the more hazardous compounds of strychnine or fluoracetate. Earlier-generation anticoagulant rodenticides required ingestion of sufficient amounts over an extended period of time before poisoning would occur. This is not the case with newer products; a single ingestion is sufficient to cause hemorrhage and death. Usually it takes two to five days before signs become apparent, but in very young, very old, or ill animals, it may take no more than twenty-four hours. If ingestion of a rodenticide is suspected, it is critical that a veterinarian be contacted, even if signs of poisoning are not yet obvious.

Tracking powders are more commonly used by professional exterminators. The tracking powders are more of a direct threat to cats, especially if the powders are placed in an area that is frequented by cats. The powders adhere to the feet and fur of both rodents and cats, and the poisons are then involuntarily ingested when the animal grooms itself if you observe your cat ingesting rodenticide tracking powders, follow the instructions for inducing vomiting outlined later in this chapter. Then the cat should be bathed to remove any residual poison on its body. Your veterinarian should be contacted as soon as possible.

Sadly, cats may be inadvertently poisoned by owners who administer medications without first checking with their veterinarians. Severe reactions can be caused by giving an over-the-counter drug to a cat

Inhalation accounts for another method of chemical poisoning. This usually occurs when a cat is unable to escape and has no choice but to breathe automobile exhaust fumes, sprayed pesticides, smoke, gas escaping from a heater or stove, or other toxic fumes.

Signs of Poisoning

Reactions to chemical poisoning are varied, depending on the kind of substance, the amount ingested or inhaled, and the previous condition of the cat. At one extreme, a cat may show intense excitement or convulsions; at the other extreme, there may be lethargy, even coma. Danger signs include excessive drooling, difficulty in breathing or swallowing, muscle spasms, trembling, vomiting, and diarrhea. A cat with carbon monoxide poisoning may have telltale bright red lips and tongue, and it will appear weak and dizzy. Obviously, any strange odor on the breath or body bears investigation, and a spilled container of chemicals or medicine may point to a toxic encounter.

A given amount of a toxic substance will generally have the strongest effect on kittens, old cats, and weak or sick cats. Every poison does not have a specific antidote, but certain emergency procedures can be successful if administered quickly.

The signs associated with anticoagulant poisoning include weakness, easy bruising of the skin, pale mucous membranes, difficulty in breathing, nosebleeds, and blood in vomitus and stools. However, it can take as long as five days before these signs are apparent. If you observe any of the aforementioned signs, schedule an appointment with a veterinarian. If possible, take samples of any bloody stools or vomit for analysis. The veterinarian may perform certain blood tests to determine the extent of the poisoning.

First Aid for Ingested Poisons

If a cat has been poisoned, someone must call immediately to alert the veterinarian that an emergency case is coming, while first-aid procedures are begun. Tell the veterinarian what type of poison is involved (if you know it), the cat's signs, what first-aid measures are being performed, and when the cat will arrive. Note: If the cat is convulsing or is unconscious, first aid is inadequate. Wrap the animal in a blanket and rush to the veterinarian without delay for expert attention. In most cases, if the cat is conscious and is not convulsing, induce vomiting. Note: Do not induce vomiting if the cat has swallowed an acid, an alkali, or kerosene. See the special section on these agents that follows.

The goal when inducing vomiting is to remove poison from the stomach before it can pass to the intestines and be absorbed into the bloodstream. Open the cat's mouth without tipping its head way back and slowly pour in one of the following:

1. Give 1 to 2 teaspoons of syrup of ipecac (may be repeated once in twenty minutes if needed).

2. Give 1 to 2 teaspoons of a 1:1 mix of hydrogen peroxide and water (repeat a few times at twentyminute intervals if

Repeat or alternate these measures every five or ten minutes until the cat vomits. Save the vomit and especially the chemical container, if available. Bring these to the veterinarian to help identify the poison and choose specific treatment. To save time, one person may drive while another attempts to induce vomiting. If there is no way to see a veterinarian, try to determine if there is a specific antidote to the poison -something that will neutralize or detoxify the poison that has already entered the bloodstream. Check the label on the container, if available, or call the nearest Poison Control Center, if the poison is known. The National Animal Poison Control Center (NAPCC) is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, by calling 1-900-680-0000 or 1-800-548-2423. There is a charge for these services.

If no specific antidote is available, give water or milk, force-feeding if necessary, to dilute the poison already in the cat's system. If activated charcoal (the kind purchased in a pharmacy, not charcoal briquets) is available, mix several teaspoons into the liquid. The charcoal will adsorb (bind to) poison in the intestine, so that it is passed out of the body without entering the bloodstream. Do not use the charcoal if the cat has been given syrup of ipecac, for they will bind together and inactivate each other. Try coating the intestines to slow absorption. Feed the cat one to three tablespoons of egg whites. One to two teaspoons of mineral oil may help to prevent some poisons from passing from the intestine into the cat's system, but this must be given slowly and carefully to prevent aspiration.

If the cat is severely depressed, it may become necessary to give artificial respiration. (See SECTION: FIRST AID.) While traveling to the veterinary hospital, keep the cat warm and lower its head to allow liquids to drain out of the mouth.

Signs of anticoagulant rodent poison develop over a period of four to five days. These include depression, skin discoloration, labored breathing, and prostration. The treatment consists of a blood transfusion and doses of vitamin K. Do not attempt to diagnose this condition and initiate vitamin therapy on your own. Chances of the cat's full recovery are very good if the condition is treated early.

Acids, Alkalis, and Kerosene

Acids, drain cleaners (alkalis), and kerosene will burn the mouth and throat both going down and coming up. Do not compound damage to the body by inducing vomiting. Instead, give the following general antidotes:

For acids:    give antacids, e.g., baking soda solution or a single dose of one teaspoon milk of magnesia per five pounds of body weight.

For alkalis:    give one to five teaspoons of a mixture of vinegar (or lemon Juice) diluted with an equal part of water.

Acids, alkalis, and kerosene can be diluted in the system, and the intestines can be coated, by giving oral doses of milk, mineral oil (caution-administer slowly), or egg whites.

First Aid for Inhaled Poisons

The first remedy for a cat that has inhaled deadly fumes is fresh air. Put the cat outside in the open air, regardless of the weather. Artificial respiration may be required. (See SECTION: FIRST AID.) A veterinarian will be able to administer oxygen and respiratory stimulants, if needed. Recovery generally occurs within a few hours; however, temporary blindness or deafness has been known to occur and then disappear spontaneously within a matter of days or weeks.


Keep toxic substances out of a pet's reach. (See Table).  If the label says "Keep out of the reach of children," then keep it out of the reach of cats, too. Never give your cat medication that has not been approved by a veterinarian. if the cat is on a prescription drug, ask the veterinarian about possible toxic reactions before administering any additional medicines.

Keep the cat in the house until lawns that are freshly sprayed with insecticide or fertilizer have dried. However, rain will dilute the poison sufficiently to remove danger, allowing the animal to go out afterward. Some pesticides are toxic to humans and animals. No one should remain in the vicinity where they are being sprayed.

Open the garage door when warming a car engine. Animals could be napping or even trapped inside. Noxious fumes can be deadly for both animals and humans. Maintain good ventilation in any area when working with chemicals that give off fumes, and be certain stoves and furnaces have no gas leaks. Common sense goes a long way toward keeping a cat sound and healthy.


What is moderately hot for a human being can be deadly for a cat. Unfortunately, cats are intolerant of high environmental temperatures that their owners easily withstand. Human body temperature is reduced by releasing sweat at the surface of the skin. A cat's only defenses against high temperatures are rapid breathing and licking its fur. If a cat is exposed to a situation in which the air is warmer than its internal temperature (anything over 102.2oF), heatstroke (hyperthermia) is inevitable. Feline deathtraps are poorly ventilated cars parked in the sun, restriction to concrete runs without shade, or confinement to cat carriers in hot weather. Short-nosed cats (such as Persians), asthmatic cats, and overweight cats are especially susceptible to heatstroke.

On a hot summer day, a cat may be on the verge of heatstroke if it suddenly begins rapid breathing, panting, salivating, or vomiting. These signs should be considered a serious warning.


A mild case of heatstroke can be treated by immersing the cat in cool water or wrapping it in cool, wet towels to reduce its body temperature. However, if the cat shows signs of weakness or overheating, it should be taken to a veterinarian for treatment. it may be given

oxygen to prevent brain damage, fluid therapy to correct dehydration, various treatments to reduce the body temperature below 103*F, and other supportive care. In severe cases, blood may flow from the cat's nostrils. This may be indicative of disseminated intravascular coagulopatby (DIC), a bleeding disorder precipitated by prolonged excess body heat. if the cat reaches this stage, response to therapy is poor.


Always provide adequate ventilation for a cat when traveling in a car. When parking a vehicle, locate it in a heavily shaded area and keep the windows open, but preferably do not leave cats, or any animal, in a parked vehicle. Always provide plenty of fresh drinking water. Long-haired cats with matted coats will dissipate body heat better if they are clipped for the summer months. Humans tolerate heat better than cats. If the weather is hot for humans, it is worse for cats


There are many causes of burns: contact with flame or direct heat, flying cinders and sparks, steam, hot liquids, spattered cooking oil, hot tar, and caustic chemicals. Burns are classified as either major or minor, superficial or deep. Major burns cover more than 5 percent of the body surface. A superficial burn affects only the surface skin. A deep burn damages or destroys the deeper layers of skin and possibly the underlying tissues. A deep burn may destroy the hair follicles, so that scar tissue will form and the fur will be permanently gone. Secondary effects of burns can be destructive, even fatal. These include shock, infection because of exposure of the wound to bacterial invasion, and toxemia from the absorption of poisons produced by the damaged cells or bacteria. Intensive, prolonged care is necessary for a cat that has been deeply burned. Recovery from deep burns is possible, with proper therapy, if 15 percent or less of the body surface is affected.

Thermal Burns

Thermal burns are injuries caused by contact with flames, hot objects, or hot liquids. Chemical or electrical burns are classified separately. Household accidents are the most common causes of thermal burns, a large portion of which occur in the kitchen. A cat may be spattered by hot grease from a frying pan or scalded by boiling water, or the footpads may be burned by walking across a hot stove. These accidents are often the result of carelessness by the owner and could be avoided if dangerous items were kept out of the pet's reach.

When the skin is burned, the small blood vessels dilate, allowing fluid to escape and accumulate in the surrounding tissues, causing localized swelling. Some fluid comes to the surface, making the burned area moist and red. if the burns are massive and the protective layer of skin is completely absent, the rapid loss of fluid may cause severe shock. The way feline skin responds to burns is different from the way human skin responds; as a result, it is easy for owners to underestimate the severity of a burn. If in any doubt as to the severity of the injury, always seek veterinary attention as quickly as possible.

When a cat has been scalded by hot liquid or steam, the hair and skin are still in place. in this instance, the size of the burn can be determined by the red appearance and by the fact that it will feel hot to the touch. Fluid released by the blood vessels after a scalding may mat the hair over the wound, hiding the damage. This can give harmful bacteria time to multiply. An infection and accumulation of pus may be hidden for some time. Later, the cat shows signs of illness. An injured cat characteristically becomes very defensive and may resist attempts to help it, because of fear and pain. An owner must be prepared to restrain the cat to treat the burn. One's priorities should be to relieve pain, prevent or treat shock, prevent infection, and stimulate healing.

Treatment of superficial burns. To relieve the pain of a superficial burn, apply ice packs or immerse the affected area in cold water. Dry gently. If possible, remove the hair from around the wound to minimize chances of infection. Do not apply butter or any oilbased ointment; these may intensify the burning sensation. Also, do not apply human medications; these may be toxic if licked by the cat.  Instead, apply a thin film of an antibiotic such as a topical ophthalmic (eye) ointment or one of the following home remedies: some "jelly" from the inside of the leaf of an aloe vera ("burn") plant; or a wet dressing of Burrough's solution made with water and Domeboro tablets or powder, available at most pharmacies. Either of these home remedies will reduce pain and inflammation when applied repeatedly to keep the injured area moist.

Cover the area with a clean dressing, held in place with a bandage. Take the cat to a veterinarian for further examination and treatment if the burn is serious. Otherwise, check the bandage daily. if the burn becomes infected or doesn't begin to heal within several days, it is time to see the veterinarian.

Treatment of deep burns. Extensive or deep burns need immediate veterinary attention. Call ahead to make sure a veterinarian will be ready and able to treat the cat as soon as it arrives; this will save precious time. Meanwhile, soak a clean cloth in cold water and apply it very gently to the burned area. Keep the patient warm and monitor for signs of shock as you transport it to the veterinarian. Protect the wet dressing with thick, clean, dry bandages or towels and keep the cat calm during the journey.

In cases of severe burns, the victim loses a great amount of fluid. The veterinarian may choose to establish an intravenous route of fluid therapy to counteract this loss.

If for some reason it is impossible to obtain immediate veterinary treatment, clean the visible debris or foreign matter out of the wound with simple contact lens solution or a sterile salt solution. This can be made by adding one teaspoon of salt to one pint of boiled water and allowing it to become lukewarm. Sterile distilled water can take the place of the boiled water. If the injury is dirty or greasy, first cleanse it gently with soap and warm water, then with the saline solution.

Electrical Burns

Electrical burns are perhaps the most dangerous kind and are often fatal. They are usually caused by chewing through a plugged-in appliance cord, by lightning, or by coming into contact with an improperly insulated appliance. Electrical burns most often happen at the corners of the mouth or on the tip of the tongue, appearing as red, sometimes blistered flesh, which is painful to the touch for the cat. The burn itself is not nearly as life threatening as the electric shock that accompanies it. Cats may be jolted into cardiac arrest and death.

A slower developing, equally treacherous complication is pulmonary edema. It is a buildup of excessive fluid in the lungs, which can appear an hour after the electrical shock occurs, and, if untreated, can be fatal. Any animal that has suffered an electrical bum should be taken directly to the veterinarian, even if there are no apparent complications An electrical burn is a life-threatening emergency. Brain or nerve damage is a strong possibility, and, in most cases, the cat does not survive without immediate veterinary attention.

Do not attempt to treat the bum at home. The other complications are far more serious, so the cat should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. The first priority is to treat the animal for shock. it is highly possible that the cat will need cardiopulmonary resuscitation. (See Cardiopulmonary RESUSCITATION, Section: FIRST AID.) Have another person alert the veterinarian that the cat is on its way.

Signs of shock may include respiratory distress, a pale or blue color to the lips, gums, and lining of the eyelids, stiffness in the limbs, a glassy stare, and perhaps total collapse. As the cat goes into shock, its temperature drops rapidly. It is imperative to keep the cat warm, using a hot-water bottle or warm blanket.

Prevention. Decrease the possibility of electrical shocks by unplugging all appliances that are not in use. Young animals (up to about eighteen months of age) can be expected to gnaw on electrical cords and other items. Especially during these early months, they should not be left unattended near potential sources of electrical shock.

Chemical Burns

There are several types of chemicals that cause burns: acids (e.g., toilet bowl cleaners), alkalis (e.g., lye, drain cleaners, caustic soda), and primary irritants (e.g., turpentine). A strange odor may be one of the first telltale signs that a cat has come in contact with one of these agents. Any of these chemicals will cause painful redness of the skin and may even eat away the skin if left on for an extended period of time. The cat may further injure itself by licking at the noxious substance. It is important to wash the chemical from the skin quickly, soothe and protect the injury, and obtain veterinary care.

Wear rubber gloves to cleanse the corrosive substance from the animal. Wash away acids with an alkaline solution, consisting of one teaspoon bicarbonate of soda dissolved in one pint of warm water. Wash away alkalis with an acidic solution, consisting of equal parts of vinegar and warm water. These opposing types of solutions will neutralize the chemical causing the burn. if the nature of the chemical is unknown, wash the area with plain water.

Check the chemical container, if available, to see if a specific antidote is listed, and if so, apply it to the burned area. if this is not possible, apply one of the home remedies mentioned for thermal burns (see "Thermal Burns," this section) to soothe pain.

When the cat's face and eyes are burned, restrain its body in a thick blanket, if possible. A second person may be necessary to help with treatment. Hold the eyelids open and gently flush them with copious amounts of lukewarm water. A bulb syringe will help guide the water directly into the eyes. Eyes are extremely fragile and must be treated as quickly and gently as possible. As soon as the caustic substance has been removed, take the cat to a veterinary hospital.


Frostbite and freezing cause tissue damage that is similar to burn damage. They occur when an animal is exposed for a long period to extreme cold and high winds. Circulation becomes impaired in the extremities (ears, tail, feet) and ice crystals form in the tissues, causing major damage. The affected area may first turn very pale, then, after thawing, become red and scaly. Frostbite causes severe pain; therefore, handle an affected cat with extreme care.

First, move the cat to a warm place. Use moist, warm packs or a warm blow-dryer to bring the temperature of the affected area rapidly back to normal. Do not use excessive heat and do not rub the frozen areas This may cause further damage or loss of tissue Apply an antiseptic such as eye ointment to the affected area. Call a veterinarian; he or she may prescribe oral antibiotics to prevent or fight infection, and sedatives for pain.

It may take five to ten days before new tissue can be seen replacing the dead, frozen tissue. if healing is not evident, there is a danger of gangrene, and some amputation may be necessary.

In the case of serious freezing, the entire body temperature will be dangerously low and the cat may be comatose and near death. Quickly reverse this decline by immersing the cat in warm, not hot, water (102*F to 105*F, 39*C to 41*C.)  Dry very gently and thoroughly with a warm blow-dryer, then wrap the cat snugly for warmth. Treat signs of shock and take the animal quickly to a veterinarian. If you are snowbound and cannot get out, try to feed a conscious cat frequent small amounts of warm broth or other warm liquid.

Frostbite and freezing can be prevented by keeping the cat indoors in times of extreme cold or by ensuring access to a sheltered dry area in a barn, garage, or porch. Once affected, animals are more prone to frostbite in the future, so recovered animals should be carefully protected during future cold weather


Insect stings, particularly those of wasps and bees, are a hazard. Cats are fascinated by movement and will jump and snap at wasps or bees, often getting stung in the process. Resultant swelling can be severe and dangerous, especially in the mouth or throat. Swelling within the mouth or throat, or pressure caused by swelling in the neck, can block the air passages and threaten suffocation. Swelling of mucous membranes in the mouth leads to excessive salivation and difficulty in eating. ice packs will help to reduce swelling, but persistent swelling indicates a systemic, possibly allergic reaction, which should be treated immediately by a veterinarian.

For a simple bee sting, the first course of action is to remove the stinger. If it is a wasp or bee sting in the mouth, wash the mouth with a mixture of one teaspoon baking soda to one pint of water. If the sting is on the skin, gently swab the painful area with rubbing alcohol. immediately apply a paste of baking soda and water to help relieve the itching. Use this treatment for all types of insect bites that cause a mild, local reaction.

Ticks are prevalent in wooded areas in the summer. These parasites fasten onto the cat's body, embed their heads into the skin and suck blood, eventually swelling up to resemble a coffee bean. To remove a tick, cover it with an alcohol-soaked piece of cotton; never try to burn it with a match or cigarette. After a few minutes it should begin to back out of the cat's skin. Lift it off with tweezers, taking care to keep the head intact. Fragments of the head that remain in the skin can cause infection. Place the tick in a jar of alcohol to kill it, then flush it down the toilet. Swab the affected area of skin with alcohol and let it dry.


This is a seldom reported cause of accidental death in cats. Most cases occur in young animals that fall into a water bowl, a deep pool of rainwater, backyard swimming pools, streams, or rivers. if they cannot find the steps, as in a pool, or otherwise cannot climb to safety until rescued, then they will drown. Rescue and firstaid measures should be tried and are aimed at getting the water out of, and air back into, the lungs. Holding the cat up by the hind legs will get rid of most of the water. Begin CPR by gentle chest compression and mouth-to-nose resuscitation. (See "CPR" and "Artificial Respiration," See: First Aid) If the water is cold, then warming the cat in warm water or with blankets may help; then take the cat to the veterinarian as fast and safely as possible.

We hope you will refer to this section often and familiarize yourself with these emergency procedures so you'll know what to do immediately if (hopefully never) an emergency situation arises without wasting time searching for help.

                                                                                                                  Max's House


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