Cats in general come into the vet less than dogs. I think there are several factors behind this. First, very few cats respond well to “do you want to go for a ride?” They do not want to go for a ride, they don’t want to get in the carrier, they don’t want to leave that delicious sunspot that they are napping in. Cats are tough and they are excellent at hiding their illness. They don’t get yearly heartworm tests. They don’t eat ridiculous things like dogs, they don’t try to bite porcupines. However, cats have their own type of emergencies that are very important.
While it is always important to call your veterinarian when you are in question, I will discuss some situations that are absolute emergencies versus some that may not be. For instance, if your pet has just been hit by a car they should be brought in to the veterinarian as soon as possible. If they vomit once, I may not worry. If they vomit several times or vomit up a hairband, I worry.
Cats hide pain and illness better than dogs, so many times they get to where they need to be seen as an emergency before you even knew something was wrong. However, any time your cat stops eating, drinking, or using the litter box normally they should be seen at least the next business day. Unfortunately, these are signs that something has usually been going on for a while so waiting many days after you begin to see changes can decrease the chance of an easy fix and will often increase the cost of treatment.
If your cat stops going to the bathroom, this is something that should be addressed. Constipation is a fairly common problem that is much easier and cheaper to resolve if you bring your cat in sooner than later. Constipation is an issue that can wait for the next business day, but if your cat does not defecate for more than a day you should schedule an appointment.
If your cat (especially male cats) are unable to urinate, this is an immediate emergency situation. Straining to urinate with little to no pee coming out, vocalizing (screaming or howling) while in the litter box straining, and pain in their abdominal area on gentle pressure are indicators of a urinary blockage. This requires immediate attention, if the bladder gets too full it can rupture which is usually fatal. Additionally, urinary blockages can cause heart and kidney failure if not dealt with immediately.
If your cat loses the ability to move their hind end, this is an emergency. Cats with heart disease (which can often go undiagnosed) are prone to developing clots. These clots become lodged in the aorta near the rear legs (aortic thromboembolism). Signs of this include howling, inability to move the hind legs and tail, urinating or defecating on themselves, and rear paws that are cold to the touch. Less often this can happen to front limbs, so suddenly not using a limb is important for many reasons. This is difficult to treat but is very painful and medication to ease this pain and the subsequent stress should be given immediately regardless of the long term plan.
Severe respiratory distress is an emergency. Cats can develop fluid in their lungs from asthma and also throw blood clots to their lungs. Minor heavy breathing is something which should be seen soon; it becomes an emergency when your cat is laying down, wheezing, and breathing with their mouths open. Fluid in the chest cavity can be drained to increase comfort immediately, and cats that are breathing abnormally and unable to stand are essentially drowning. This is something that is dangerous and very stressful so should be resolved as soon as possible.
If you are noticing changes in breathing on and off, it could be a sign of a lesser problem like early asthma. These cats should be seen, but are not as urgent as one who is collapsed and gasping.
Additionally, many times heart problems can present as coughing. Since we are all used to our cats leaving hairball presents, clients often think this is the reason behind the cough. However, coughs that persist without any hairballs showing up could be a sign of an underlying problem. Older cats that have never had hairballs before are much more likely to have a heart or lung issue rather than sudden old age hairballs.
Any time a cat eats something toxic (lilies, antifreeze, any human medication, any medication not meant for them, etc) they should be seen immediately. Vomiting is not indicated in all toxin exposure and is hard to induce in cats, so check with your veterinarian right away.
This is not an extensive list, but are some of the things that make me want to see your cat even at 2 a.m. There are many situations where we see animals for an emergency and find out that the pet has not been right for many days. If you address a problem as soon as you find it, it will be easier to treat. I know from experience that things are more difficult, more expensive, and more stressful in the middle of the night; especially if it could have been addressed days earlier. When cats’ behavior changes they are telling you that something is wrong. While most cats leave a pile of vomit for you to step in every now and then, consistent vomiting, diarrhea, not eating, or behavior changes mean there is a problem.
Cats are good at hiding problems and pretending that they don’t need vets, or sometimes humans at all. Therefore, when small things start to change that you observe, it can mean big changes are happening that you cannot observe. Always be proactive and talk to your veterinarian as soon as you notice alterations in behavior; in the long run, it can save you money and may save your cat’s life.