The limp little kitten lay unconscious on the table between us. “I looked it up online, and I thought it could wait until Monday. I really didn’t want to take him to the emergency clinic, if I didn’t have to,” his owner said.
As veterinarians, that is something we hear all the time. Although emergency veterinarians often are among the best in our profession, they are people you do not know in a veterinary hospital you probably haven’t been to — and it can be intimidating to seek help there. Compounding that concern is the additional expense often associated with an emergency visit or 24-hour facility. So how do you know when it is OK to delay seeking medical care, and when you need to have your pet seen immediately?
General Guidelines For A Sick Cat
Unfortunately, no hard-and-fast rules exist for knowing when to take a cat to the vet. If a critical organ system is involved (respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, urinary, etc.), veterinary care is needed. Cats who are old, young or frail from concurrent diseases should probably be seen more quickly than those who are otherwise robust and healthy. Following are more guidelines to help you make some critical decisions.
- If the overall condition of your pet appears to be worsening, take her to a vet as soon as possible.
- If a little supportive care at home doesn’t seem to be making any difference for what appears to be a minor illness, it probably isn’t quite so minor and should be addressed.
- Believe your gut feeling. If it is telling you something is wrong and needs to be treated, it more than likely is — and you should seek help. Delaying medical care for a serious illness is likely to make it more expensive and more complicated to treat, in addition to adding to the discomfort of your pet. In this light, those “extra” emergency fees may be less expensive than waiting it out to pay for a regular visit.
Health Problems That Need Immediate Vet Care
So, what sort of problems should never wait?
1. Breathing Trouble: Topping the list includes any difficulty breathing or changes with breathing. Our respiratory system is one of the central parts of the body, and without enough air, we don’t have much time. If your cat has trouble breathing, is making a wheezing noise when she breathes, breathes quickly or hard, or seems to be moving her belly a lot with each breath, then don’t waste any time — head directly to the emergency clinic. Such problems are caused by a wide array of underlying conditions that range from asthma to heart failure. That being said, they all need to be addressed quickly and efficiently. Proceed immediately to an emergency facility. If possible, call them in advance so that they may have additional oxygen available when you arrive, because the stress of travel may temporarily make some pet’s breathing worse.
2. Bleeding: The next problem that requires immediate attention is bleeding that does not stop with a few minutes’ worth of pressure, or that appears to be severe.
- If you see blood that is gushing or spurting, put pressure on it and head immediately to the emergency facility.
- If the blood is oozing, put a few minutes of pressure directly on the wound. If it continues to bleed, it probably needs veterinary care.
- If it stops with pressure or on its own, it might be safe to keep an eye on it and address it at the earliest available time with your regular veterinarian. The one significant exception to this would be if a dramatic trauma occurred: If your cat was hit (or bumped) by a car, fell out of a window or was attacked by a dog. In such cases, some of the bleeding could be internal, and you would not necessarily know that there was a major problem. With any significant trauma — including things like burns — your cat should be evaluated right away. Although your pet may appear normal, conditions can change quickly with internal injuries, and you don’t want to wait until symptoms develop.
3. Change Of Consciousness: Also on the “immediate” list are any problems that result in a loss of, or change of, consciousness.
- If you come home and your cat appears to be unconscious and you are unable to wake her, take her immediately to the emergency hospital.
- If she is slow to be aroused, seems disoriented or confused, then something isn’t right and she should be checked out.
- If your cat has a seizure — even if she goes back to normal shortly after the “event” — have her evaluated right away, particularly if this is a first-time episode that has not already been diagnosed and addressed by your regular veterinarian. Although neurologic problems may be isolated events within the electrical paths of the brain (similar to blowing a breaker on a fuse box), they may also signify something much more serious and should be addressed quickly.
4. Male Urination Trouble: Perhaps last on the “immediate” list includes any male cat who is straining in the litter box to urinate. Interestingly enough, this is a guideline that pertains specifically to males — because while the females may be uncomfortable, it is much less likely to be an emergency for them. The males have a long, narrow and winding urethra (which is the “tube” that carries urine from the bladder out through the penis). If there is a blockage in this tube, the urine flow from the bladder can be blocked, resulting in a bladder rupture. Female cats have a much wider urethra, and therefore are much less likely to block. A straining male cat should be taken immediately to the veterinary hospital no matter what time of the day or night. Females can usually wait until morning should the signs develop overnight, but use your judgment as to how uncomfortable she appears and if it is getting worse.
Health Problems That May Or May Not Need Immediate Care
Some health conditions tend to be more of a judgment call — and you may have to consider several factors when deciding whether the problem is in the “have it seen now” category or the “wait until morning” category.
1. Vomiting And Diarrhea: These are common issues. Cats can very quickly become dehydrated if they are losing more fluids than they take in. It can be difficult to judge whether your cat is dehydrated or not. In general, dehydrated cats are simply not feeling well. If your pet is vomiting and has diarrhea and is clearly under the weather, don’t wait. If she seems completely normal otherwise, it may be safe to monitor her and have her examined immediately if her condition changes.
Vomiting or diarrhea that is severe or protracted, however, should likely not wait. Cats that are not even able to keep down water should probably be seen quickly, as well as those that may have swallowed a poison or foreign object and are now vomiting. However, the cat that plunked up a hairball on the top of the stairs and now seems to be feeling fine and eating and drinking normally probably does not require a midnight trip to the ER.
2. Limping: The next judgment call comes with the limping cat. If she is unable to put any weight on the limb or has had a significant trauma, do not wait — there may be a broken bone that needs to be addressed. If she is able to put some weight on it but is favoring it, in general, it is OK to monitor for up to 24 hours before having a pet seen. Some animals, however, will walk on broken bones, so this is not a hard-and-fast rule.
3. Eye Ailments: These can also often cause a dilemma. Although they may appear minor, the scope of eye problems can change quickly and become severe. If a cat is unable to open the eye or squints continuously, if it appears cloudy or painful, or if a cat is pawing at the eye — it probably needs to be checked by a vet immediately. If the eye is completely open and seems comfortable but has some redness or discharge or otherwise looks different, you may be able to wait until the next day.
Using Your Judgment
Clearly, many different problems may affect your cat, and it is impossible to cover them all here. Keep the following guidelines in mind to help you make a decision:
- Seek immediate care if a critical organ system is involved: respiratory, cardiovascular (bleeding), urinary (males) or neurological.
- Seek immediate care if the problem appears to be getting worse.
- Seek immediate care if your pet appears to be in significant discomfort and/or depressed.
- Seek immediate care when your gut feeling tells you there is something significantly amiss.
By using the above guidelines, you will likely make the correct decision the vast majority of the time. However, as veterinarians, we see patients regularly where owners have made matters worse by choosing to wait, treating the problem at home or monitoring the animal for a few days before bringing it in. My personal preference is to see an animal sooner rather than later, because often we can minimize your expenses by diagnosing and treating a problem early and —most importantly — spare the animal discomfort in the process. When in doubt, check it out!
And what happened to the kitten I mentioned at the beginning who presented as unconscious? He was very dehydrated from some vomiting that had started on Friday night shortly after we closed, so by Monday morning what had likely started out as a minor problem had become a major one. Luckily, with a few days in the hospital for fluid therapy and TLC, he was back on his feet and climbing the curtains again. His owner learned a lesson about treating what looked like a minor problem early on in the process. Fortunately, little Thunder was none the worse for wear by the end of the week, and home chasing his sister Lightning before he knew what hit him!