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Should My Cat Go to the ER?

Here are 6 good reasons to haul tail.

by Alycia Washington, DVM
May 21, 2021
Uncomfortable looking gray cat sitting on a window sill

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Cats! They can be weird. This makes it extra-difficult to know when something is up with them. But it doesn’t make it any less important to figure out what’s wrong in a timely manner. When your pet is sick, getting them to the ER quickly can be a life and death situation. But don’t let the pressure get the best of you — just prepare yourself by reading over these six reasons to rush to the emergency room.

1. Straining to urinate

Most cats will gamely demonstrate that they’re having problems peeing by making frequent trips to the litter box, squatting to pee outside the box, or vocalizing while they try to go. These signs can be because of a urinary tract infection, sterile bladder inflammation, bladder stones, or a urinary obstruction — and the ER can provide much-needed relief. If your cat is completely unable to urinate, that’s a genuine emergency. (It basically means the body can’t get rid of waste products.) Urinary obstructions often develop because of urinary crystals, mucus plugs, bladder stones, or a combination of these conditions. This can lead to bladder pain, kidney damage, and serious electrolyte abnormalities. Urinary obstructions can quickly become life-threatening without treatment — so don’t waste time second-guessing a trip to the ER.

2. Constant vomiting

Don’t confuse this with that thing where your cat revenge-pukes on the book you’ve been reading. This is when your cat vomits on your book, then the floor, then the bed... That’s when it’s time to go to the vet. Vomiting may be a sign of a gastrointestinal obstruction, organ dysfunction, or dietary indiscretion — and blood work or radiographs can determine if your cat needs medical management for GI upset or even surgery. There’s a lot of fluid loss associated with vomiting and your cat can quickly become dehydrated if the vomiting is left untreated, so some form of fluid therapy is usually needed. Timing is everything!

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3. Abnormal breathing

While it’s normal for dogs to pant when they’re hot, excited, or exercising, cats prefer to keep their breathing under control. Labored breathing can develop from inflamed airways, infection, or fluid accumulation in or around the lungs. Changes in breathing may be subtle — your cat may stretch its neck forward to try to get more air or display exaggerated movement of their chest or abdomen with each breath. Cats with respiratory disease can go from unwell to unstable quickly, so get your kitty to the vet if there are any changes in their breathing.

4. Trauma

If your cat gets hit by a car, gets into a scuffle with another animal, or has an otherwise traumatic accident, they should be evaluated by a vet. Professional wound care and antibiotics prevent bites and other injuries from developing nasty infections. Internal bleeding and lung injuries may be hard to spot right away since cats are experts at hiding the extent of their discomfort. It’s better to be safe and have your cat examined so that you don’t have to worry about what you’re not able to see.

5. Bumping into things

This isn’t about your cat’s desire to ram into your ankles as soon as you walk through the door. This is more about a sudden difficulty in getting to the litter box or food bowl without knocking into things en route. If your cat was cruising smoothly yesterday and seems discombobulated today, get them to the vet. They could be experiencing sudden blindness because of hypertension, infection, glaucoma, and degenerative disease. Severe hypertension can lead to detached retinas (the part of the eye that receives light). It can also damage the kidneys, heart, and brain if left unchecked. Yikes. No matter the cause of vision loss, early diagnosis and treatment is vital for your cat to regain their sight.

6. Your cat is being weird (in a concerning way)

You know the particular ways in which your cat tends to be weird, so if you’re seeing something new, you’re right to be concerned. Maybe your chowhound (er, chowkitty?) is refusing food. Maybe your turbo cat doesn’t want to get out of bed. Sudden weakness, hiding, and/or constant vocalization aren’t normal. It’s never a bad idea to contact your vet or the ER after hours for advice if you feel something is off. They can provide guidance on whether you should come in right away or wait to see your primary care vet when they’re available.

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alycia washington, dvm

Alycia Washington, DVM

Alycia Washington, DVM, is a small animal emergency veterinarian based in North Carolina. She works as a relief veterinarian and provides services to numerous emergency and specialty hospitals. Dr. Washington is also a children’s book author and freelance writer with a focus on veterinary medicine. She has a special fondness for turtles, honey bees, and penguins — none of which she treats. In her free time, Dr. Washington enjoys travel, good food, and good enough coffee.