Cat First Aid – Emergency Cat Care

April is Pet First Aid Awareness Month which is a good time to talk about first aid for our cats and how we can prepare for a medical emergency.

Every pet owner should be prepared for an emergency or sudden onset of sickness, and have the following:

  • The number and address of your veterinarian and an emergency veterinarian within easy reach.
  • The number of a pet poisons helpline.
  • Have a well-stocked first-aid kit (see below).
  • Have a cat carrier, with a soft towel or blanket within easy reach.

Signs of sickness

First and foremost, be aware of what is normal and what isn’t. Cats are great at hiding pain and signs of sickness, but will give subtle clues which may include:

  • Withdrawal/hiding: This can be subtle, as not all cats are lap cats, but most of us know where our cat’s favourite spots are.
  • Change in routine: For example, a cat who isn’t there to greet you at the door after work when he usually does, or a cat who doesn’t harass you for food the second your feet hit the ground on a morning
  • Hunched over appearance: Most cats when they are relaxing look bright and alert, a cat who is hunched over will look uncomfortable, and not appear bright or alert.
  • Lip licking: This is normal when a cat has just eaten, but if it is between meals lip licking can be a sign of nausea and can be accompanied by drooling.
  • Refusal to eat: A loss of appetite can be an early red flag that the cat is not well. Cats are at risk of potentially deadly hepatic lipidosis if they develop anorexia, which requires urgent and aggressive veterinary care.
  • Sudden behaviour change: This might not be obvious. I have a cat who is screaming at me for his breakfast from the moment I get out of bed, one of my dogs always excitedly greets me at the door when I come home (even if I’ve only been gone for 5 minutes), routine behaviours like this that change suddenly may indicate the pet is not well.

What to do in an emergency

Stay calm, going into a panic is going to scare your cat and make the situation worse. Your cat doesn’t understand the situation, but going into a panic is going to stress the cat and make the situation worse. Don’t underestimate a cat’s ability to read and feed off our emotions.

Call your veterinarian or emergency hospital and tell them what has happened, they may be able to give you some emergency first aid advice over the phone while you prepare to bring the cat in.

If your cat has ingested a toxin, bring along the packaging, or a sample if possible.

Do not try to force liquids or medications into a sick cat unless your veterinarian instructs you to do so.

Do not try to induce vomiting unless the veterinarian tells you to do so.

If possible, bring along a carer while you drive to the veterinarian, it will be their job to stay with the cat while you drive.

Emergencies that can’t wait

  • Breathing difficulty
  • Anaphylactic shock
  • Gum colour which is pale, blue or yellow
  • Poisoning
  • Venomous bite
  • Collapse
  • Bleeding (deep lacerations, or internal bleeding which may show as nosebleed or blood in the urine)
  • Sudden paralysis
  • Heatstroke
  • Odd sized pupils
  • Difficulty urinating (don’t confuse straining in the litter tray with constipation)
  • Burns (chemical or thermal)
  • Protracted vomiting
  • Sudden seizures
  • Broken bones
  • Female cat having trouble giving birth
  • Laceration more than 1 inch long
  • Near drowning
  • Smoke inhalation
  • If the cat has been in a trauma such as a fall or hit by a vehicle, even if the cat appears well

How to avoid emergencies

Obviously, prevention is better than cure and while we can’t always keep our cats 100% safe, we can reduce the chances of some emergencies by taking precautions.

  • Never give a cat human medication; a cat’s liver is not able to metabolise medications efficiently.
  • Store human and feline medications separately, if your cat is on prescribed medications, have one person in charge of giving the medication to avoid a double-up of the dose.
  • Lock away poisons.
  • Don’t use rat poison or snail bait in the home or garden.
  • Where possible, use pet-friendly household cleaners such as vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. If you must use chemicals, keep the cat out of the room while cleaning and rinse thoroughly afterwards.
  • Don’t let your cat roam outside.
  • Never leave a cat alone in a car.
  • Screen windows to prevent accidental falls.

How to assess a cat

Most of us aren’t veterinarians, but there are some ways pet owners can evaluate their cat.

Gums should be a pink colour; pale gums indicate internal bleeding, shock or anemia.

  • Respiration – 20 to 30 breaths per minute in a cat at rest.
  • Pulse – 130 to 240 beats per minute.
  • Temperature – 100 to 103 F (37.7-39.4C).
  • Capillary refill time – 1 to 2 seconds.

To test the capillary refill time, lift the top lip and press a finger onto the gum for a second or two. When the finger is removed, the gum will be white.

  • 1 to 2 seconds is normal.
  • 2 to 4 seconds is moderate to poor.
  • > more than 4 seconds is an emergency.
  • < less than 1 second is an emergency.

Gum colour:

  • Pink – Normal
  • Yellow – Liver disorders
  • Chocolate brown gums – Methemoglobinemia
  • Blue – Cyanosis (low oxygen levels)
  • Pale/white – Anemia (low red blood cell count) or shock (due to blood loss)
  • Bright red – Heatstroke, carbon monoxide poisoning

First aid kits

Every household should have a first aid kit which should include:

  • Adhesive tape – 1-inch roll
  • Activated charcoal tablets
  • Alcohol-isopropyl (for sterilising equipment)
  • Antibacterial ointment
  • Antibacterial soap
  • Bandage (preferably self-adhering)
  • Betadine solution (dilute 1:10)
  • Bubble wrap (for splinting)
  • Clean, soft towel or blanket
  • Container with a lid
  • Cotton balls or roll of cotton wool
  • Cotton tips
  • Eyedropper
  • First-aid book
  • Flashlight
  • Gauze pads 3 x 3 inch
  • Gauze roll 3 inch
  • Gauze tape
  • Heating pad
  • Hydrocortisone ointment
  • Information card with your pet’s baseline temperature and weight
  • Karo syrup
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Ready-made cold packs & hot packs or a hot water bottle
  • Scissors (blunt-tipped)
  • Splints
  • Sterile saline flush solution
  • Surgical tape
  • Syringe (10cc)
  • Telephone number of your poisons hotline.
  • Telephone number of your veterinarian, including an emergency clinic.
  • Thermometer (rectal)
  • Tick remover
  • Triangular bandage
  • Tweezers

First aid for cats

First and foremost, if your cat has ingested a toxin, see a veterinarian immediately. There is no safe way to induce vomiting in cats in the home.

Below are some emergencies require immediate care to stabilise the cat. In most cases, it will still be necessary to see a veterinarian.

Neck, back or spinal injury:

A cat with a neck, back or spinal injury will need to be transported to the veterinarian on a rigid board, and movement kept to an absolute minimum.

  • Place the board beside the cat and CAREFULLY slide a towel under the cat.
  • Gently pull the cat and towel onto the board.
  • Cover the cat with a blanket and apply tape over the cat and attach it to the board to keep the cat still.
  • Transport the cat on the board to the car (this is a two-person job)

Broken leg:

  • If the veterinarian is some distance away, you will need to immobilise the limb to prevent further injury from occurring.
  • A piece of cardboard (or the cardboard centre of a paper towel roll) or rolled up newspaper can be used around the limb, wrap the splint in gauze or tape or secure with pantyhose or cling film. Make sure the tape/gauze isn’t too tight that it cuts off the circulation. The splint should be long enough to reach the joints above and below the break. When splinting, do not attempt to straighten the leg yourself.
  • If a compound fracture has occurred, place a piece of sterile gauze or a sanitary towel immediately over the wound and then splint. Do not try to push the bone back under the skin.


Apply pressure to the wound with clean gauze or a sanitary napkin. Replace if the gauze/napkin becomes saturated. Once bleeding has stopped (5 to 10 minutes), tape the gauze and proceed to your veterinarian.

Poison on the coat:

If the poison (such as antifreeze or dog flea products) is on the coat, wash it off with dishwashing detergent (the kind you put in the sink, NOT the dishwasher), apply to the area and rinse with warm water, repeat two more times.

Once you have washed the cat, go straight to the veterinarian. If you are concerned about bathing the cat, proceed to your veterinarian so that they can wash it off. Do not allow the cat to groom himself if the coat is contaminated.


Assessing the burn:

  • First-degree burns (superficial) only affect the outer layer (epidermis) of the skin. The area is red, sore and may be swollen.
  • Second-degree burns affect the epidermis and the dermis. Blisters form, the skin is very red and painful to the touch, severe swelling occurs.
  • Third-degree burns (full-thickness) burns affect the epidermis, the dermis and the underlying tissues (such as muscle and bones. The area may be charred black or white, swelling, lack of pain (due to the nerves being destroyed).

First-degree burns: Flush the area with cold tap water for 20 minutes, or stand the cat in a cool bath. This helps to reduce damage; burns continue to cook the area even after the heat source has been removed. Apply aloe vera gel to the area and keep a very close eye on your cat while he heals. Never apply butter to a burn.

Second-degree burns: Flush the area with cold tap water for 20 minutes or stand the cat in a cool bath. Once the burn has cooled, apply a damp cloth to the area and proceed to your veterinarian.

Third-degree burns: Cover the cat with a damp cloth and then wrap it in a towel or blanket. Proceed immediately to your veterinary practice. Call on the way so that they can be on standby.

Near drowning: Cats by nature will avoid water, but sometimes accidents happen. If your cat has fallen into a body of water and inhaled water, do the following:

  • Get the cat out of the water.
  • Hold the cat upside down by the hind legs and gently shake the cat to help drain water from the lungs, if you have another person with you, have them thump both sides of the chest (firm but not hard) for 10-15 seconds.
  • Artificial respiration: If the cat is not breathing after the above, start artificial respiration (see below).
  • Listen or feel for a heartbeat by putting your hand against the left side of the cat’s chest or feel for a pulse in the femoral artery where the hind leg meets the body. If there is a heartbeat, continue breathing, if there is no heartbeat, commence CPR and artificial respiration.
  • Apply CPR (below): Place the cat on a firm surface and cup your hand over the chest, behind the elbows, squeeze the chest, pushing down approximately 1.25 cm (1 inch), give one breath for every 5 chest compressions.

Not breathing:

  • Close the mouth and put your lips over the nose. Give two quick breaths, see if the chest rises, continue until breathing is established. You should give 15-20 breaths per minute.
  • Listen or feel for a heartbeat by putting your hand against the left side of the cat’s chest or feel for a pulse in the femoral artery where the hind leg meets the body. If there is a heartbeat, continue breathing, if there is no heartbeat, commence CPR and artificial respiration.

Low blood sugar:

  • Of the cat is conscious, offer him some food.
  • If the cat is unconscious, apply corn syrup, honey or maple syrup to the gums.
  • Proceed to your veterinarian.

No heartbeat (CPR):

Place the cat on a firm surface and cup your hand over the chest, behind the elbows, squeeze the chest, pushing down approximately 1.25 cm (1 inch), give one breath for every 5 chest compressions.


  • If possible, open up the mouth, pull the tongue forward and remove the object.
  • Remove the cat’s collar if he is wearing one.
  • Pick up your cat and hold his back against your stomach, with his head up and his feet hanging down.
  • Place your fist just underneath the rib cage; you will feel the soft, hollow place easily.
  • Give four forceful thrusts with your fist (not your arms) inward towards your belly, while also applying an upwards pressure at the same time.
  • Check the mouth for the object with a finger sweep. If the object dislodges, it is no longer necessary to perform the Heimlich maneuver. If he is still not breathing, perform another check of the mouth as the object may have been dislodged enough to grab it with your fingers. Perform the Heimlich maneuver again if it still hasn’t been dislodged.
  • Check the ABC (airway, breathing, and circulation), and perform artificial respiration or CPR if necessary.
  • Seek veterinary attention immediately.

Embedded object:

  • If possible, a small embedded object such as a shard of glass or a thorn can be carefully removed with a pair of sterile tweezers. Apply antiseptic to the area and watch for signs of infection such as redness, oozing, pain or inflammation.
  • Large embedded objects, such as a fence paling, arrow, or tree branch should be left in place as removal could further damage the internal organs and cause further bleeding.
  • Control bleeding by applying pressure on or around the wound.
  • Keep the cat as still as possible and drive to the veterinarian. Two people may need to stay with the cat, one to hold the object in place and the other to keep the cat calm and still.


  • Keep the cat as still as possible to slow down the spread of the venom
  • Remove the cat’s collar
  • Keep the bitten area lower than the heart
  • Keep the cat quiet and calm; a rapid heart rate will help the venom to move more quickly around the body
  • Apply a pressure bandage over the affected limb to slow down venom spreading to the heart; the bandage should be firm but not so much that it cuts off circulation
  • If possible, immobilise the affected limb
  • If there is no heartbeat or pulse, administer CPR

How to subdue an injured cat

Safety comes first, and an injured cat is scared and in pain which can cause it to lash out. In some cases, it will be necessary to subdue a cat to treat the immediate emergency.

The best way to subdue a cat is to wrap him in a large towel; it should be tight enough to restrain him, but not tight enough to restrict breathing.

How to treat minor injuries at home

Minor scrapes and superficial cuts can be treated at home. Most common antiseptics are toxic to cats, remember anything that goes on their skin will be ingested during grooming. Betadine (diluted to the colour of weak tea) and chlorhexidine are safe antiseptics for use on cats.

  1. Thoroughly wash hands with soap and water and dry.
  2. If the wound is bleeding, use clean gauze or a sanitary towel and apply gentle pressure to the wound. It can take up to 10 minutes for bleeding to stop.
  3. Flush (irrigate) the wound using a syringe filled with saline solution to remove debris. If necessary, trim the fur around the wound if you don’t have a syringe, a use clean gauze or a soft cloth. Always flush or wipe debris towards the outside of the wound.
  4. Once bleeding has stopped, and the wound has been flushed, apply the antiseptic solution to a clean gauze strip, squeeze to remove excess liquid and clean the wound.
  5. Continue to clean a 1-inch margin around the wound.
  6. Gently pat the wound and surrounding area with clean gauze.

Julia Wilson 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. She enjoys photography, gardening and running in her spare time. Full author bio Contact Julia