First Aid and Your Cat: What to Do in an Emergency
Bryan Day, a student at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, was studying for midterm exams on his couch, notes in his lap, papers scattered nearby. Ethan, his lazy orange tabby, was curled next to him, head pressed against Bryan’s thigh, body stretched out over Bryan’s textbooks and papers. Before long, Bryan and Ethan, both seemingly bored to tears, succumbed to simultaneous naps.
A short time later, Bryan was awakened by some unexpected jostling of his leg. Bryan looked down in horror. Ethan was in the midst of a seizure!
If you came home from work and found your cat having convulsions, paralyzed, or bleeding, would you know what to do? April is "Pet First-Aid Awareness Month". The American Animal Hospital Association, (AAHA) states that 1-out-of-4 pets would survive an accident or illness if pet owners were familiar with and capable of providing first aid when necessary. Owners that are aware of proper life saving techniques and how they apply to our pets are better equipped to handle emergencies as they arise.
First aid doesn’t mean setting up a do-it-yourself veterinary practice. Your primary objectives when administering first aid is to prevent further injury, alleviate pain and distress, and help start the recovery process. Whatever the emergency, getting help from a veterinarian is the highest priority. Knowing proper first aid, however, may dramatically affect your cat’s recovery.
The first step in any emergency is to make sure the environment is safe. If the emergency occurs in a burning building, near an electrical hazard, or in the middle of the road, move the cat to a safer location first. The next step is to quickly assess your cat’s condition and rank the problems from most severe to least. This process is called triage. Broken bones and external bleeding are easily detected, but more serious problems may be overlooked. Your initial evaluation should be as follows:
1. Does your cat respond to his name being called or head being stroked? If not, immediately check the A, B, Cs: Airway – is something in the throat obstructing the airway? Breathing – is the cat breathing? Circulation – is there a pulse? If not, start CPR immediately (see sidebar).
2. If your cat does respond: take your cat’s respiration rate. Normal is 20 – 40 breaths per minute. Next, take your cat’s pulse by placing your fingertips along the inside of the thigh, on the femoral artery, in the groin area. Count for 15 seconds and multiply by 4. Normal is 160 – 240. If possible, take your cat’s temperature with a digital rectal thermometer. Normal is between 101 and 102.5 degrees F. Finally, observe the color of the gums. They should be pale pink. White gums may indicate severe anemia, gums with a bluish tinge may indicate inadequate oxygenation, and yellowish gums could signify liver disease. Small red spots are pinpoint hemorrhages and could indicate a bleeding problem.
3. Rank the problems. If the cat isn’t breathing, has no pulse, is choking, in shock or severely bleeding, these problems take immediate priority. If these problems aren’t present, tend to the next most severe problem and get the cat to a vet immediately.
Fortunately, emergencies are rare. Some of the more common feline emergencies encountered are listed below.
Hit by car/falls from height: Move the injured cat out of any dangerous area. Use a blanket or coat as a stretcher. Gently ease cat onto the stretcher, then lower him into a large box or secure container for transport to a veterinarian. Cats falling out of windows (“hi-rise syndrome”) is a serious problem, especially in urban settings. Dr. Dianne DeLorenzo, owner of Abingdon Square Veterinary Clinic in New York City, treats several hi-rise cats every summer. “The best first aid for these cases is to prevent the problem in the first place. Windows without screens can be deadly”, she says.
Drowning: Cats generally avoid water, but cats may accidentally fall into a pond or pool. If cat is not responsive, hold the cat upside down by firmly gripping the hind legs and swing the cat vigorously downward to remove water from the lungs. If the cat is not breathing, begin artificial respiration.
Choking: try to look in the back of the throat. If a foreign object is detected, try to spot it with a flashlight, and then remove it with tweezers or a spoon handle. This should be reserved for cats making choking noises and gasping for air or pawing at its mouth.
Burns: Most burns in cats are due to improper heating pad or heat lamp use, or scalding by hot liquids. Cats may also jump onto stovetops and burn their feet or tail. Heat burns should be cleaned gently with soap and water, and then apply cool compresses to the area for 30 minutes. Cover with a loose bandage and take to a veterinarian. Do not put ice directly on the area, and avoid ointments, as they are difficult to remove.
Electric shock: Kittens are most likely to chew or bite an electric cord. If your cat still has the cord in his mouth when you discover it, pull the plug out. If this isn’t possible, use a broom handle to move the cat away from the live wire. Shocked cats often go into cardiac arrest. Provide CPR if necessary. Take your cat to the vet immediately, even if the cat only appears to have burns on the tongue or mouth, as pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs) often develops after electric shock.
Frostbite: Paws, tails, and ears are the most common areas affected by frostbite. Initially, the skin appears pale. Later, it becomes red, hot, painful, and swollen. Warm the frostbitten area rapidly by immersing in warm water for 15 minutes. Cover with a loose bandage, and avoid rubbing the skin. If devitalized tissue develops, it must be removed by a veterinarian.
Hypothermia: Exposure to cold weather can result in hypothermia, a generalized cooling down of the whole body. This can cause a very slow pulse and breathing rate, seizures, coma, and death. Affected cats should be given a warm water bath. Take a rectal temperature every 10 minutes. Stop the bath when the temperature reaches 101 F, then wrap the cat in blankets that have been briefly warmed in a dryer. Avoid heat lamps or electric blankets, as they can burn the skin.
Heatstroke: Cats suffering from heatstroke usually pant, may have bright red gums, and may collapse. Rectal temperature can rise as high as 110 degrees! Wrapping it in towels soaked in cool (not ice cold!) water will lower the body temp. Monitor temp every ten minutes. Discontinue cooling when temperature reaches 103. Dr. Mark Gibson, owner of Animal Kind Veterinary Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, encounters his share of heatstroke cases every summer. “If the vital signs are stable and the cat isn’t comatose or in shock, cooling takes first priority. Clients who’ve begun the cooling process prior to coming here tend to have a better outcome for their cat.”
Seizures: There are many causes of seizures – heat stroke, low blood sugar, brain tumors, liver disease, epilepsy, etc. If your cat seizures, clear away any objects that the cat might hit during the seizure. Do NOT attempt to hold the cat’s mouth open or closed; airway obstruction by the tongue rarely occurs. Provide gentle restraint during the seizure by holding a light blanket or towel over the cat. Afterwards, confine the cat and monitor breathing and pulse. Schedule a veterinary appointment as soon as practical.
It should again be emphasized that first aid is not meant to replace veterinary care. Knowledge of basic first aid allows cat owners to handle emergencies effectively until a veterinarian can be reached. Knowing the basics may someday save your cat’s life.
For a cat to survive, its breathing and/or pulse must be restarted within a few minutes. If a cat is unconscious and its breathing and pulse have stopped, prompt CPR may save your cat’s life. This is where the ABC’s come in handy:
Artificial respiration: if the cat is not breathing, but there is a pulse…
• Remove the collar if present. Lay the cat on its side, open the mouth, clear the Airway of any mucus using a napkin or tissue. Pull the tongue forward to clear the throat. Sometimes this may stimulate breathing and the cat to regain consciousness
• If the cat remains unconscious, put your hands on the chest and apply gentle downward pressure to expel air from the lungs. Let go, to allow them to refill. Repeat every five seconds until cat breathes on its own.
• If there has been chest trauma, the lungs might not refill automatically. You should blow air into them. Gently Breathe into the nostrils for 2 to 3 seconds to inflate the lungs. You will see the chest move if done properly. Pause for 2 seconds, then repeat. Continue until cat breathes on its own.
Cardiac massage to restore Circulation: if no pulse is detected…
• Place your fingers on the chest at the spot where the elbow rests against the chest, and press gently but firmly five or six times in a row. Wait one second, then repeat. Alternate with artificial respiration. If no response is seen after ten minutes, the procedure is not likely to be successful
Sidebar: How to prevent emergencies
The best way to treat emergencies is to prevent them before they happen. Here are some helpful tips:
• Electric wires should be kept out of sight. Some cats (and kittens in particular) will chew on wires out of boredom or playfulness.
• Keep cleaners, polishes, bleaches, detergents, and other household chemicals in a locked cabinet
• Houseplants should be kept in an elevated area and out of the cat’s reach.
• Keep trash secure both inside and outside your house
• When traveling with your cat, make sure you provide a sturdy carrier. Don’t roll windows down far enough for a cat to escape the car, and don’t confine a cat in a car alone while running errands, etc.
• During summer, make sure your cat has access to shade, fresh water, and adequate fresh air/ventilation. If windows are open, be sure there are screens in place. If using window fans, make sure they’re shielded to prevent a foot or tail from getting caught and traumatized.
Sidebar: basic first aid kit
A feline first aid kit should contain a few basic items that may be needed in the event of an emergency or accident. Some basic items to consider:
• Adhesive tape
• Cotton balls and roll cotton
• Cotton swabs
• Gauze pads and gauze on a roll
• Antibiotic ointment