We’d all rush a cat to a veterinarian if he or she were bleeding profusely or ate something that could be poisonous. But feline emergencies seldom come in such dramatic ways. Health crises may be less obvious, especially in older animals that hide them from owners, yet still require quick intervention. How do we notice and respond to those?

To find them, look for changes in behavior: eating, drinking, grooming, using the litter box. You may want to create a diary of what you see; a written record helps you describe a pet’s behavior precisely to your vet.

Changes in Urination and Breathing

First, keep an eye on the litter box, especially if you have male cats. Straining to urinate yet producing only a few drops or none can indicate a urethral obstruction. Inability to urinate can quickly become a life-threatening emergency; if left untreated, it can cause kidney damage. (Peeing outside the box, by contrast, likelier means a urinary tract infection or a behavioral issue.) Urethral blockages need immediate attention, and hospitalized care is recommended.

Second, look for oddities in breathing patterns. You can expect a spell of rapid breathing after a period of exertion, but ongoing difficulty in breathing should be assessed as soon as possible. It could come from trauma, infection or asthma, heart failure and pneumonia, all of which can be life-threatening feline emergencies. Cats with respiratory distress may need supplemental oxygen and hospitalized care, and vets may have to postpone a diagnosis until your pet is more stable.

Unusual Eating and Drinking

A cat may go a day without eating much, if he or she is feeling stressed or has a temporarily upset stomach. But if appetite decreases sharply for more than 48 hours, consult a vet. A cat that won’t eat has to draw energy from stored fats, which the liver processes. But the liver needs protein to do that properly. If protein stops coming, the liver gets overwhelmed by fats and starts to fail. Anorexia is a nonspecific symptom, so a vet will need to run diagnostic tests.

If the cat starts drinking unusually large amounts, as older cats often do, that can be an early tipoff to kidney disease or diabetes. Blood work and urinalysis will reveal the cause.

Cats who eat and drink normally occasionally regurgitate when they consume food too quickly or barf up a hairball. But if a cat vomits multiple times a day, your vet needs to become a detective. The cause could be anything from GI tract upset to a systemic disease such as kidney failure, diabetes, GI blockage or even cancer. Blood work and radiographs may yield an answer, and treatments could include outpatient care or surgery for such feline emergencies.

One last thing: Be wary of wobbly gait or difficulty walking. That can mean something minor, such as a soft tissue injury, or a more serious problem, such as a stroke or blood clot in the legs. Because prognoses vary greatly, more advanced diagnostic tests will probably be required.

More About CARE

CARE is the pet equivalent of a human medical center. Our practice offers board-certified specialty care based on referrals from primary veterinarians, as well as 24/7/365 emergency care. Please enjoy a visual tour of the practice at carecharlotte.com/tour.

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