In a crisis, owners who are prepared for what they hoped would never happen are better able to give their cat a fighting chance. First aid, as its name suggests, is the first (not the only) step in dealing with an emergency situation such as injury or the sudden onset of severe illness.
If an owner is first on the scene, the effective administration of first aid can be vital in keeping the cat alive, alleviating pain and suffering, and preventing further harm when the cat travels to the animal hospital.
In less catastrophic situations, timely and appropriate first aid can contribute to a speedy recovery.
Also, see First Aid For Your Pet
How you handle an emergency depends on a number of factors – the type of emergency (car injury, electric shock, poisoning, acute illness); its severity (conscious or unconscious; breathing or not breathing); and the resources you have available – including whether you are alone or can call on others to help you.
Your goal should be to get the sick or injured animal to the animal hospital as soon as possible (except in the most straightforward situations). Although after an accident it may seem that nothing is wrong, certain problems – such as internal bleeding – are not always immediately apparent.
Likewise, other problems, such as fluid buildup in the lungs after an electric shock, may have a delayed onset.
Even the most loving cat, when sick, in pain, or frightened, is likely either to run and hide or (if immobilized) lash out at anyone, including its owner. (Indeed, immediately following an accident, your cat may not even recognize you.)
Before administering first aid, you must restrain your cat.
Quietly approach your cat. Call it by name; talk to it in a calm voice. Let it smell the back of your hand.
If you can move the cat without causing harm, wrap it in a towel or small blanket to restrict its limbs and prevent it from scratching and biting you.
For the trip to the animal hospital, place your cat in a cat carrier or ease it into a cat bag (a pillowcase will serve admirably). If, in the rush of the moment, you can only find a box, place the cat in the box and cover the box with a blanket or heavy towel. (The cat will calm down if it can’t see out.)
Never allow a cat to roam unrestricted around your car as you drive. Ideally, have someone else drive while you comfort the cat or, if you must drive, drive calmly within the speed limit.
Car injuries are the single greatest hazard for the outdoor cat.
If you know or suspect your cat has been hit by a car, have someone phone ahead to alert the animal hospital while you assess whether your cat is breathing. (Is its chest moving up and down? Can you feel air exhaled from its nostrils?)
Check for a heartbeat by feeling your cat’s chest just behind the point of its elbow.
If your cat has stopped breathing, begin artificial respiration. If the cat is not longer breathing and its heart has stopped beating, begin cardiac massage.
Because human and animal cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) are fundamentally the same, you may want to consider taking a course in CPR.
Make sure to note whether the cat is bleeding from orifices such as its mouth or rectum (indications of internal injury). If it is bleeding from an external wound, cover the wound with a clean cloth and apply pressure to stanch the blood flow.
If you suspect broken bones, do not pick up the animal – particularly if it cannot move its hind legs ( a possible sign of a broken back).
Slide a board or towel under the animal so you can move it with as little motion and manipulation as possible.
Shock can follow several hours after a trauma – such as a road accident, fall, electrocution, or any injury that causes internal or external bleeding. During shock, the cat’s circulatory system collapses, causing blood pressure to drop.
The typical signs of shock are increased heart rate (over 200 beats per minute), rapid shallow breathing, cold extremities, and pale mucous membranes (rather than pink membranes).
Check the cat’s gums for telltale paleness.
A fast, feeble pulse is also an indication of a shock-related circulatory problem.
Check for increased heart rate by cupping your hand around your cat’s chest just behind its elbow.
The heart rate of an unstressed, healthy cat is around 120-150 beats per minute.
Shock is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate emergency treatment.
On the way to the hospital with a cat in shock, keep the cat warm and lower its head slightly to help keep the blood flowing to the brain.
Many substances, both inside and outside your home, are toxic to cats.
Potential hazards include pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, household cleaning agents, human medications (such as aspirin or acetaminophen), automotive products (such as ethylene-glycol-based antifreeze), paint products, and plants (such as holly, mistletoe, Easter lily, philodendron, and yew).
Some plants, such as poinsettia, cause oral irritation but are not particularly poisonous.
Be alert to signs of poisoning such as salivating, swelling or sensitive areas inside the cat’s mouth, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, lethargy, staggering, twitching, convulsions, and coma.
If you catch your cat munching or slurping up a poisonous substance or if you suspect poisoning (cats can walk through toxic substances and then ingest them when they lick their paws), immediately call your veterinarian or the 24-hour National Animal Poison Control Center (NAPCC) at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The NAPCC – 800-548-2423 – is the only poison center in the nation that deals exclusively with animals. (Have your credit card ready when you call. There is a charge of $30 per case, payable by credit card only.)
Because time is of the essence, be prepared to tell the veterinarian or toxicologist what your cat ingested, how long ago the cat ingested it, and what signs your cat is exhibiting.
Fortunately, cats, being the sensible creatures they are, tend to have a healthy respect for electrical cords. Kittens and young cats, however, are sometimes not so savvy. If you see your cat chewing on a cord, before you touch the cat, disconnect the cord from the outlet.
Even if your cat appears no worse for wear, take it for a professional checkup.
Complications can crop up hours later when the cat may begin to show signs of shock or begin to have difficulty breathing because of pulmonary edema (accumulation of fluid in the lungs).
On occasion, cats – especially unneutered males – get into fights. (One of several good reasons to have your cat neutered.)
Bite wounds can abscess – even if you conscientiously administer home care that includes clipping the area, cleaning the wound with hydrogen peroxide (the 3-percent antiseptic solution), and applying warm compresses.
Often the first an owner knows of an abscess is when it ruptures.
Take your cat to the veterinarian who will make sure the abscess is draining properly and will give your cat antibiotics.
Make sure to keep the wound draining for a few days because the wound needs to heal from the inside out so infection won’t be trapped beneath the scab.
Most of the time, you can’t be sure of what bit your cat. Under most state laws, a cat with a bite wound of unknown origin, with no proof of its rabies vaccination status, must be quarantined for 6 months or euthanized. So make sure your cat has up-to-date rabies shots.
To sum up, the key to administering effective first aid is being prepared and remaining calm.
You give your cat the best possible chance, though, by being able to assess the situation and prevent further harm, then seeking professional help as soon as possible.
Make sure the following telephone numbers are by the phone:
1. Your veterinarian
2. Nearest 24-hour animal emergency service
3. The National Animal Poison Control Center (800-548-2423)
4. Local cab service
Maintain a well-equipped first-aid box
1. A variety of gauze dressings and bandages
2. Cotton roll and cotton balls
3. Thermometer (The normal temperature range for a cat is 100.4 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit.) An ear thermometer for your children is relatively easy to use, but it reads approximately one degree lower than a rectal thermometer.
4. Hydrogen peroxide (3-percent solution)
5. Antibacterial ointments
6. Milk-of-magnesia tablets
7. Activated charcoal tablets
8. Grooming clippers (to clear area around wounds)
10. Reflective space blanket (to keep cat warm in the event of injury or shock)
The ABC’s of Resuscitation
A. Clear the Airway: Remove the cat’s collar. Open its mouth and tilt its head down to remove any fluid from the airway. Then extend the head and neck to open the airway and, it necessary, clear the airway with your finger. (Watch out for the reflex bite response.)
Pull the tongue forward so it does not block the throat.
B. Restore Breathing: If the cat is not breathing, begin artificial respiration. Hold the cat’s mouth closed, cover its nose and mouth with a piece of gauze or handkerchief (for hygienic reasons), and put your mouth over its nose and mouth.
Blow into the nostrils for 1 to 2 seconds until the chest expands. Blow only as much as needed to inflate the lungs.
Repeat after a 2-second pause. Do not stop until spontaneous breathing is restored.
C. Restore Circulation: If you do not feel a heartbeat or a pulse, start cardiac massage by placing your thumb on the cat’s chest behind its elbow with your fingers on the other side of its chest. Squeeze gently – two compressions per second – until heartbeat is restored or you reach the animal hospital where trained emergency personnel can begin advanced life-support techniques. (Do not administer artificial respiration or cardiac massage if the cat is breathing and has a heartbeat.)