First Aid for Cats

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Cats are independent animals. If they are not feeling one hundred percent they tend to hide away somewhere quiet and sleep. As these symptoms are non-specific, deciding what is wrong with your cat and subsequently treating it can be difficult. Unfortunately a trip to the vets will normally be necessary.

Below is a list of the more common conditions that cats suffer from, which to some extent you may be able to help with. However, prevention is better than cure and it is important to remember that most injuries to cats (cat bites, road traffic accidents etc…) happen at night. Ideally you should keep your cat inside after dark (easier said than done we know!). If you do need to see a vet, always phone first, even with emergencies. This allows staff at the practice to prepare for your pet’s arrival.

Vomiting and Diarrhoea

Everyone knows that from time to time cats vomit, often due to hairballs. However, if your cat brings up a lot of hairballs it may be useful to give them occasional doses of liquid paraffin in their food. This is also available in a palatable form called Katalax which can be put on food or onto the cat’s paw for the cat to lick off. Some “Hairball Control” diets are now available for long haired cats – fibre in the diet helps carry hair through the digestive tract.

If your cat is vomiting frequently, or has diarrhoea as well, then it is unlikely to be fur balls. In this case you can try starving the cat for twelve to twenty four hours and then feeding it on a light diet. We normally recommend feeding food such as boiled chicken or white fish in four to five small meals throughout the day. If this does not help, or there is blood in the diarrhoea or vomit, or the cat seems depressed and quiet then it really must be seen by a vet. Equally, if your cat keeps getting bouts of vomiting or diarrhoea a check up would be recommended.

Cat bites and abcesses

Almost all skin abcesses that cats get are due to fighting with other cats, so if you are woken by cats screaming in the night, check your cat the next day for signs of injury. Abcesses an take one to three days to develop after a fight and often the initial signs are only a scab or a tooth mark. As the abcess builds, your cat will tend to become lethargic and go off its food, and you may notice a painful swelling – typically around the head, on the tail base or on the legs. Most lameness in cats occurs from fighting. The abcess may burst, in which case the cat will start to feel better. However, without antibiotics the abcess will usually scab over and reform. It is always wise to seek veterinary attention for a cat abcess whether lancing (opening the abcess) is needed or not.

Road Traffic Accidents

Unfortunately it is extremely common for cats to be knocked down by cars and suffer severe trauma. Not surprisingly young cats tend to be more at risk, and most accidents will happen at night. The injuries can vary from bruising to fatalities, though it is amazing how many cats manage to struggle home despite appalling injuries. If you suspect your cat has been hit by a car then it is important to see a vet urgently. If you can, check the cat’s breathing, the colour of its gums and look at its claws as they will normally be scuffed if your cat has been in an accident. If there is a lot of bleeding from the head, wounds or back end there is normally little doubt as to what has happened. Pale gums and rapid panting can also give you clues.

Cats that have been involved in an accident may be in a lot of pain and tend to be extremely panicky. Therefore it is important that your cat is transported to the vet in a secure carrier rather than in your arms. Unfortunately we have seen cats escape from their owner’s grasp in this situation, never to be seen again. You may want to wrap the cat gently in a towel or blanket to move him into his basket and this will also keep him warm during the journey.

Cuts and Bleeding

With their thick coats, it is often difficult to see small wounds on cats’ legs and bodies. Most will either heal by themselves or form an abcess if caused by a bite. If you do see a wound it will probably be big enough to need stitching. Try to clean it if possible using warm water and cotton wool. If it is bleeding, try to apply some pressure using a bandage.

Straining to pass Urine or Faeces

This is normally caused by cystitis (in the case of urine) or constipation (faeces), although a condition affecting the large intestine called colitis can also look similar. Cystitis in cats is very common. You may see a few drops of urine passed – possibly blood stained. It is generally not life threatening although, in male cats, the very narrow urethra can block, leading to urine retention and kidney damage within twenty-four hours.

Constipation tends to occur in older cats, or ones that have had injuries to their pelvis causing a narrowing of the pelvic canal. Liquid paraffin or “Katalax” can help mild constipation although most cases will need medical treatment or an enema.

Colitis means inflammation of the large intestine or ‘colon’. Cats will normally pass soft faeces after a lot of straining, often with some mucus or fresh blood. They are often caught short and mess in the house with this problem.

In all cases of straining the cat should be seen by a vet to diagnose the case and implement effective treatment.

Hair Loss / Itching / Excessive Grooming

Cats are naturally clean animals, grooming themselves regularly. However, if they appear to be grooming all the time, are scratching a lot or are developing bald areas, there is likely to be a problem. About 80 – 90 percent of skin disease in cats is caused by the humble flea. Most cats carry fleas on themselves without causing a problem. However, some can become allergic to the saliva of the flea, so any flea bites cause intense itchiness leading to scratching, over-grooming, scabs and hair loss. It is almost impossible to find fleas on allergic cats as they tend to groom them off very quickly once they have been bitten. Therefore it is always essential to treat a cat with these signs, whether fleas are seen or not. Any other cats or dogs in the house should also be treated.

If there are a lot of scabs, ulcerated areas, the cat appears unwell or is not responding to treatment, it should be seen by a vet. There may be another cause or the condition may require antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. Other potential causes are harvest mites, ringworm, pox virus, other allergies and stress.

Matted Coat

This is more common in long-haired cats which are not groomed regularly, although it can happen in short-haired cats which are too fat or too stiff and arthritic to groom themselves properly. Painful mouth problems can also make a cat unable to groom itself.

Using scissors to snip out mats often leads to nasty wounds – on you and the cat! If your cat has a gentle disposition you may be able to slowly tease out small mats, although often a demat under sedation or general anaesthetic will be necessary. It may be a good idea to get your cat checked for any medical problems at the same time.

Cat Flu

Cat flu remains the commonest contagious disease we see in cats. Unfortunately a large proportion of owners fail to get their cats vaccinated regularly. New strains of the cat flu virus appear occasionally against which vaccines only give partial protection. Cat flu can also cause persistent infections in some cats, leading to intermittent signs whenever the cat is stressed. These cats act as a source of infection for “in contact” cats.

Cat flu can vary from mild to life threatening. It is likely to be worse in kittens, older cats and cats with other diseases like Feline Leukaemia Virus and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. Healthy, vaccinated young and middle age cats may show no signs apart from a bit of sneezing and slightly runny eyes. If your cat is still eating, bright and active and ocular/nasal discharges are clear, it will probably not need any treatment. However, if they stop eating then dehydration occurs. As a result, mucus in the nose gets very thick and they can go downhill quite fast. Steam inhalation (taking your cat in the bathroom when you have a hot shower or bath) will help break down the mucus. Smell is very important to a cat’s appetite, so warming food to body temperature (be careful not to overheat it) and feeding smelly food such as pilchards can help encourage them to eat. If your cat is depressed, not eating for more than a day or producing thick mucus from the eyes or mouth then a visit to the vets is in order, especially if your cat is very old or very young. Medical and supportive treatment will be necessary.


Fitting is fairly uncommon in cats. Potential causes are poisoning, brain tumours, severe liver or kidney disease and post-viral inflammation in the brain. A fit can be recognised by sudden uncontrolled spasmodic movements, often with chomping of the jaw and muscle twitches across the head and neck. The cat will often fall onto its side and will not be aware of its surroundings. Most fits only last a few minutes although afterwards your cat will be drowsy and disorientated for an hour or two.

If your cat is having a fit don’t try to restrain it – you make the fit worse and could get bitten or scratched badly. Try to move or pad any furniture or hard objects on which the cat could hurt itself. Keep the room dark and quiet to reduce further stimulation.

If the fit only lasts a few minutes and the cat then appears normal, keep it inside, quiet and arrange a check up at the vets. If the fit lasts more than 10 minutes or the cat keeps having attacks, it should be seen as an emergency.

Sore ears and eyes

Cats have extremely sensitive ears so any infections or irritations will start them scratching. In fact a lot of cats flick their ears frequently for no apparent reason. A small amount of thin dark brown wax coming from the ear is normal. However, if the ear is red or the cat is scratching at it a lot, it should be examined. In kittens the commonest cause tends to be ear mites. These can be treated with a flea preparation called Stronghold or ear medication. Adult cats with problematic ears often have bacterial infections, and require veterinary treatment.

Sore eyes can be caused by a number of things – scratches from fighting are probably the commonest. Sore eyes should always be seen by a vet as sight can quickly be lost, and is often irreversible. If the eye seems very painful, is weeping copiously, or the cat is rubbing at it, then it should be seen as an emergency.

Please remember, if your cat is showing any abnormal behaviour or signs of illness, it is usually best to have him or her checked by a vet.