This is a guest article from Dr. Lauren Pugliese, a DVM and board-certified veterinary surgeon. Readers contacted Lauren after her previous articles and requested a similar article about treating injuries in cats. I cover lots of trauma medical techniques (for people) on the blog. Here is some knowledge about our furry friends.
In teaching pet first aid, I regularly get lots of questions about how to treat injured cats. I try to briefly cover this topic, and make the information applicable to all species, but as any feline fancier will tell you, cats are special. There is a saying in veterinary medicine that “cats are not small dogs.” While many first aid principles and emergency planning strategies for dogs will work for cats, special consideration should be made for our cat companions.
First off, identification of your cat is important. Cats will wear and tolerate collars. There is scientific research to support this. I do recommend a specially made collar for cats that will break off in case your cat gets caught on something. Amazingly, cats can squish themselves into the smallest spaces and sometimes an errant hook or stick can trap them in their collar, effectively choking them. The collar should fit snugly with room to place 2 fingers under the strap. It usually takes a week or so for a cat to grow accustomed to wearing a collar.
In addition to a collar, some sort of identifying tag, contact information, and chronic medical conditions should be included. My cats wear a small capsule containing my contact information on their collars. It’s very easy to update information when using a product like this. You can find them in a pet store or on Amazon.com.
Harnesses can also be useful. Cats do not like these and it takes a lot of training and patience to make them work. A lot of the time, this type of cat harness fail occurs. Once removed, the cat is able to be a cat again. However, a harness can provide a safe way to control your cat, particularly if he jumps out of your arms.
Microchips can save your cat’s life. Some people are reluctant to have their cats chipped because of concern about an increased rate of cancer. Cats have a tendency to develop tumors when their skin is poked with needles; this has been seen with vaccines, injections of medications, and microchips. The response is delayed and happens much later in the cat’s life. The risk is low but it has been reported. I would rather get my lost cat back and have him around to develop cancer than to lose him.
It is important to note where your cat hides. When cats are sick or scared, they tend to isolate themselves and disappear. Given their ability to jump, climb, or squeeze themselves into just about any space available, it is important to remember where your cat goes when he/she is scared. This may involve scaring your cat, but that is often easy to do with a loud noise, a knock on the door, or the vacuum. You may even know from a previous frightening experience when your cat was “missing” only to be found peacefully sleeping in some weird nook after you have torn the house apart. Knowing this spot, or spots, can help you identify where to look for your cat if you need to locate her in an emergency, find a sick cat, or evacuate quickly.
If your cat is injured or sick, you may have to transport it to the vet’s office. Anyone who has ever tried to put a cat in a carrier knows that this is like trying to tackle an octopus with claws and teeth. Despite the fact that cats only have four limbs, they are incredibly agile, nimble, and become amazing contortionists when trying to be placed into a cat carrier. Behold, the magic of a pillow case. Your cat will not recognize this as a cat carrier. It is soft sided, easy to store, and everyone has them at home.
You can put your cat in the pillow case and tie the top closed. The cat will be secure, confined, portable, and can breathe through the material. If it is easier, you can then put the cat in the cat carrier with the feet already wrangled. If you are going to do this, leave the pillow case untied, and the cat can come out and be in the carrier. A word of note: most cats will not enjoy being put in a pillow case and may react negatively when let out. Be prepared.
Keep recent photos of your cat to help identify and prove ownership. Also check out other resources, such as the ASPCA. They will send you free stuff to help keep your cats safe and healthy.
Cats can get stressed easily. Panting in cats is a sign of severe stress. One way to reduce stress is to try using a cat pheromone product such as Feliway.
Recommendations for stockpiling cat medications are incredibly challenging to make. Most human medications are not safe for cats. There is no good oral pain medication to give cats. Tylenol and Advil can be fatal when given to a feline. Even the cat-specific NSAID medications have very short recommended uses of only 1 to 3 days.
Tramadol can work as a pain medication, but it is a controlled prescription drug. Opiod pain medications such as morphine can make cats have an elevated body temperature (104-106 degrees), although buprenorphine is commonly used with fewer adverse reactions. Buprenorphine in cats can also be absorbed through the lining of the mouth, so aiming the medication into the cat needs to be less accurate.
Also, due to their size, many medications need to be made especially for cats through a compounding pharmacy. Talk with your veterinarian and see if you can work out a plan together.
Many cats have very specific litter preferences. It is important to know this and be consistent for your cat. You will need to remember when making an emergency plan to have litter supplies with you. Some cats, when stressed, have spasms of the urethra (the tube that takes urine from the bladder to the outside world) that can prevent them from urinating. Ideas for lowering stress and improving indoor pet lives can be found at https://indoorpet.osu.edu/cats.
Given their small size, cats could rapidly bleed to death if they suffer a significant injury. That being said, I have never encountered life-threatening bleeding in a cat in all my years of clinical practice. Whether this may be due to the fact that these cats don’t live long enough to make it to a veterinarian or is an accurate reflection of the rarity of the event, I don’t know. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Cats are very agile and athletic, even though they sleep 90% of their lives.
Tourniquet use in cats would be particularly challenging given their small limb size. Another confounding factor in the front legs, is that tourniquets can cause nerve damage if applied above the elbow (tourniquet application below the elbow is ok). In a pinch, you can occlude the brachial artery in a cat by applying a thumb or index finger to the inside of the upper arm and pushing the tissues against the bone. However, it is probably best to apply direct pressure and place a bandage while taking your cat to a veterinarian for emergency wound management.
Cats are wonderful creatures that operate differently than dogs and people. I hope this article answers some feline-specific emergency and preparedness questions.
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