Cat Emergencies That Can’t Wait

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  • Cat emergencies that can’t wait at a glance

    • Heatstroke
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Poisoning
    • Extreme lethargy
    • Sudden paralysis
    • Venomous bite
    • Trauma (even if the cat appears well)
    • Difficult or painful urination
    • Odd-sized pupils
    • Pain
    • Heavy or unexplained bleeding
    • Difficulty giving birth
    • Wobbly (drunken) gait


    Some medical situations are life-threatening and need medical attention. We look at several immediately life-threatening conditions which can occur in cats requiring immediate medical attention.

    Even if the cat appears well, delaying medical treatment not only prolongs suffering, but the emergency can progress to the point that it can no longer be treated.

    Be prepared

    Emergencies can happen quickly and, they are always unexpected, but pet owners can still be prepared, this includes:

    • Have a cat carrier in an easy to access place
    • Keep the phone number and location of an emergency veterinarian in an easy to find location

    Phone ahead of time if possible, so that the surgery can prepare for your arrival. If your cat has ingested a poison, bring along a sample where possible. This may be a packet of medication, a sample of the toxin ingested (in the packaging), and a sample of vomit or feces.

    Never administer medication to your cat without veterinary approval; many medications which are safe for people are toxic to cats, even everyday food such as onions and garlic can kill a cat.

    Inability to urinate

    Urinary blockages are seen more frequently in males due to their narrower urethra. Sludge, crystals, and stones can become lodged, which in turn blocks the passage of urine. When this occurs, toxic waste products which would normally be flushed out of the body via the urine, start to build up in the blood. Many people confuse an inability to urinate for constipation, as the symptoms can be similar. Any cat, especially a male cat who appears to be straining in to go to the toilet, needs immediate care.


    • Frequent visits to the litter tray producing little to no urine
    • Crying in the litter tray
    • Hunched over appearance
    • Hiding
    • Lethargy
    • Licking the genitals
    • Loss of appetite

    Birthing difficulty

    Most cats will give birth with minimal difficulty, but when something does go wrong, the life of the pregnant cat and her unborn kitten(s) are at risk. In some cases, an emergency caesarian section will be necessary.

    Seek urgent veterinary attention of any of the following develop:

    • First stage labour lasting longer than 12 hours.
    • Twenty minutes of intense labour and straining without producing a kitten.
    • Straining for ten minutes while a fetus or a fluid-filled bubble is visible in the birth canal.
    • Acute depression.
    • Fever (above 103°F).
    • Sudden discharge of bright, red blood from the vagina lasting longer than 10 minutes.
    • Thick, black, foul-smelling discharge from the vagina.


    Heatstroke is a serious and life-threatening condition that can have a devastating impact on many body systems, including the heart, liver, kidneys brain and blood. It may be mild, moderate or severe. Predisposing factors include obesity, age (young and old cats), concurrent diseases and brachycephalic breeds such as Persians and Exotics.


    • Panting
    • Bright red tongue
    • Darl red gums
    • Bleeding
    • Salivating
    • Weakness
    • Anxiety
    • Vomiting
    • Diarrhea

    Severe pain

    Cats are masters at hiding pain, and they can be very unwell before it becomes noticeable to caregivers. There are many causes of severe pain in cats, most of which are medical emergencies. These include pancreatitis, trauma, abscess, and infection.


    • Hiding
    • Hunched over appearance
    • Crying
    • Aggression
    • Withdrawal
    • Increased heart rate
    • Panting
    • Tucked up belly
    • Loss of appetite
    • Reluctance to move

    Extreme lethargy

    There is a difference between a sleepy cat and a lethargic cat. A sleepy cat, when touched, will open his eyes and lift his head, maybe reposition himself and then go back to sleep, a lethargic cat can be harder to rouse, and stay lethargic even during situations that would normally rouse a cat, such as coming home from work, opening a can of cat food. There are many causes of lethargy, including poisoning, tick paralysis, infection, heart disorders, liver disease, and severe anemia.


    • Sleeping more than normal
    • Having difficulty rousing the cat
    • Difficulty standing
    • Pale gums
    • Loss of appetite
    • Changes in behaviour

    Wobbly gait (ataxia)

    Medically known as ataxia, a cat who cannot stand or walk properly due to a loss of muscle coordination.  There are three types of ataxia in cats:

    • Cerebellar – Affecting cerebellum within the brain which is responsible for muscular activity.
    • Vestibular – Responsible for balance, the vestibular system is located within the inner ear.
    • Sensory – This type of ataxia relates to a loss of proprioception, the sense of position and movement of the body


    • Loss of coordination
    • Leaning to one side
    • High stepping gait
    • Walking in circles
    • Vomiting
    • Tremors

    Odd sized pupils

    The pupils are the dark hole located in the centre of the cat’s eye, which lets light strike the retina at the back of the eye. It dilates and constricts depending on the level of light, the darker the environment, the larger the pupil, which allows in more light.

    Both pupils should dilate and constrict at the same time, and they should always be the same size. Different sized pupils can be a sign of an underlying problem, including:

    • Uveitis
    • Glaucoma
    • Brain tumour
    • Certain medications such as atropine
    • Horner’s syndrome
    • Retinal disease
    • Tumours of the eye
    • Stroke


    Plants, medications, household chemical, and toxins all have the potential to quickly kill a cat. The faster a cat is treated for poisoning, the better the outcome. If ingestion has happened recently, your veterinarian will be able to induce vomiting to decontaminate the gastrointestinal tract. If it is too late to do so, activated charcoal may be given which binds to the toxin, preventing further absorption. Many toxins severely damage the internal organs, which can not always be saved, hence the need for swift medical attention before damage occurs.

    Symptoms of poisoning can differ depending on the toxin ingested, and the body system affected. Toxins can affect the gastrointestinal tract, central nervous system, respiratory system, and multiple organs.

    • Drooling
    • Increased or decreased urination and thirst (once the kidney damage occurs, urination may completely stop, leading to a build-up of toxins in the body)
    • Loss of appetite
    • Vomiting (sometimes with blood)
    • Diarrhea (sometimes with blood)
    • Ataxia (wobbly gait)
    • Tremors
    • Seizures
    • Difficulty breathing

    If you know or suspect your cat has ingested a poison, immediate veterinary care is essential.

    Difficulty breathing

    There are many different kinds of breathing trouble cats can experience with many causes, including low oxygen levels, heart or lung disorders, and bronchoconstriction.

    Sudden paralysis

    Partial or full paralysis of the hind limbs can occur as a result of trauma, poisoning, stroke, trauma, cancer, saddle thrombosis, certain medications, slipped disk, Manx syndrome and infections.


    • Hind limb weakness
    • Wobbly gait
    • Inability to jump (this was the first sign of tick paralysis in our cat)
    • Urinary or fecal incontinence
    • Inability to walk

    Venomous bite

    There are many species of snakes, ticks, and spiders that are venomous to cats. Toxins affect many body systems, including the blood, heart, kidneys and nervous system.


    Symptoms vary depending on the species and the type of toxin but may include:

    • Ataxia (wobbly gait)
    • Drooling
    • Confusion
    • Paralysis
    • Difficulty breathing


    Even if your cat appears to be otherwise well, a cat who has had a recent trauma, such as a fight, hit by a vehicle, kicked or a fall from a height should be evaluated by a veterinarian to determine if there are any internal injuries.

    Heavy or unexplained bleeding

    Heavy bleeding can quickly lead to hypovolemic shock, which affects many body systems. Once more than 20% of blood is lost, the heart loses its ability to pump blood around the body, which can lead to organ failure. Blood loss may be internal or external.


    • An obvious external wound
    • Nosebleed
    • Blood in the urine and/or stool
    • Lameness (from bleeding into the joints)
    • Petechiae, small red spots under the skin


    • Julia Wilson, 'Cat World' Founder

      Julia Wilson is the founder of Cat-World, and has researched and written over 1,000 articles about cats. She is a cat expert with over 20 years of experience writing about a wide range of cat topics, with a special interest in cat health, welfare and preventative care. Julia lives in Sydney with her family, four cats and two dogs. Full author bio