Cat First Aid: Essential Supplies and Basic Procedures
True medical emergencies are impossible to predict and can be very scary. Fortunately, as a pet parent, there is a lot you can do to keep your kitty safe.
Veterinary care should always be sought during an emergency. But in some cases, basic first aid administered right away (or on the way to the vet) can help keep a dangerous situation from getting even worse—and might even be life-saving.
Here are some things any cat parent should know about cat first aid.
What to Put in a Cat First Aid Kit
Here’s a list of commonly recommended items for first aid and emergency situations:
Phone numbers and addresses of local emergency veterinarians and pet poison hotlines (ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435, or the Pet Poison Helpline at 855-764-7661).
A pet carrier to transport your cat to a vet.
A flashlight or headlamp.
Latex or nitrile gloves.
A large blanket or thick towels for picking up and moving your pet, or for keeping them warm.
A pet thermometer, along with lubricant (KY jelly) for insertion if using a rectal thermometer.
Instant cold packs for bruises and swelling.
Tweezers for removing ticks or splinters.
Saline eye wash.
Styptic/blood clotting powder (especially for torn toenails).
Wound cleaning and bandaging supplies.
Appropriate liquids to flush and disinfect a wound. Chlorhexidine 2% and povidone iodine are good options, although both must be diluted. Don’t use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol to clean wounds as they can damage healthy tissues and delay healing (and alcohol stings!).
Cotton balls and q-tips.
Sterile gauze pads (including non-stick pads) and gauze roll.
Self-adhesive vet wrap.
Clean cloths or towels.
Hydrogen peroxide 3% solution for inducing vomiting (but ONLY if your vet instructs you to do so).
Your vet might also support you keeping Benadryl (Diphenhydramine) on hand for allergic reactions. Just talk to your vet first about safe formulations and dosages.
Some things you should AVOID using include pain relievers (many are extremely toxic to cats!), sticky human bandages that could pull out your cat’s fur, and ointments or topical creams (unless your vet instructs otherwise) since cats could accidentally ingest them while grooming.
SEE ALSO: Cat Sedatives: When and How to Use Them
Basic Emergency First Aid for Cats
While different types of injuries and illnesses require their own specific steps, the following is a good overview of how to approach and assess a cat during a medical emergency.
Secure the Cat
This is important for the safety of cat and pet owner alike. Look for threats such as oncoming traffic, attacking animals, etc. When you can safely do so, approach the cat and move them to a safe area.
Remember that distressed or painful cats might bite as a reflex or even try to run away. A large, thick blanket may help for restraint.
Assess the Cat’s Condition
Be as quiet and calm as possible. This may help a cat feel less fearful. Avoid moving the cat more than necessary until you assess their injuries.
Look for bleeding, bones at abnormal angles, or other obvious issues. Take note of anything unusual about the cat’s condition. Examples might include: lack of consciousness or responsiveness, difficulty breathing, or limping.
Provide Emergency First Aid
If you are comfortable in your assessment and first aid knowledge, take some steps to help the cat. Common examples are provided in the next section.
Call the Vet to Let Them Know You’re On Your Way
Contact your veterinarian or an emergency vet’s office for specific advice.
Informing the vet team that you are coming also helps them prepare—so they can receive and treat your cat immediately.
First Aid for Common Cat Emergencies
Remember that veterinary care is still needed. Home care is rarely a substitute for professional assessment and medical treatment.
But in many cases, basic first aid treatments help limit the damage of an injury until your pet reaches their veterinarian.
Each situation is unique. Use these as a general guideline.
External Bleeding and Open Wounds
Severe blood loss can be fatal. And even minor wounds are at risk of infection.
For bleeding, apply pressure with a clean cloth or gauze pad. Next, flush or clean the wound using supplies from your pet first aid kit. Gently dry the area, then apply gauze or bandaging material. Ensure wraps or bandages on the limbs aren’t so tight as to cut off circulation.
If bleeding is copious or won’t stop after 5-10 minutes of consistent pressure, seek immediate veterinary care. Cover and protect the wound on the way to the veterinary hospital with bandaging materials or a clean cloth.
If you witness your cat burn themselves (by running across a hot stove, for example), immediately run cool or cold water over the area for a few minutes or cover it with cool, wet towels.
Burns can be treated much like open wounds.
Serious and fatal injuries are common when a pet is hit by a car. Even if you don’t see any obvious wounds, internal bleeding or other internal injuries may be present. Seek immediate veterinary care.
Due to the risk of spine injuries, place your cat in a sturdy box or bin for support during transportation.
In some cases, inducing vomiting is recommended. In other cases—such as with sharp or caustic substances—vomiting could make things worse. So, don’t initiate vomiting unless your vet recommends it.
Contact your veterinarian or a pet poison helpline right away. If possible, find the box or label for what your cat ingested, or a piece of the plant they ate, etc. This information will save time and allow more accurate treatment recommendations.
While not very common, severe allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock can happen in cats. A few possible causes include vaccine reactions, insect bites or bee stings, or venomous snake bites.
Anaphylaxis is life-threatening and requires immediate veterinary care. Clinical signs might include swelling of the face or muzzle, hives, sudden vomiting or diarrhea, difficulty breathing, or collapse. If you have a dose of Benadryl your vet has approved and you can safely administer it, this may help slow down the symptoms.
Symptoms might include lethargy/slowing down, restlessness, excessive grooming, panting or drooling, or collapse. Move your cat to a cooler spot (ideally air conditioning) immediately. Rinse them with cool (not cold) water. Use a fan for ventilation if possible. Take your cat to the vet right away.
Cat fights and bite wounds are common in kitties who roam outside. But even indoor cats can get into tussles. Deep, narrow bite wounds are almost impossible to thoroughly clean and are at high risk of infection. You can do an initial cleaning at home, but still seek veterinary care because antibiotics are usually needed. Don’t place ointments like Neosporin because that could trap the infection inside.
SEE ALSO: Can Cats Eat Sweets?
Tips for Restraining and Transporting a Cat in an Emergency
Even the friendliest cats might bite when hurt or scared. Handle your cat as gently and minimally as possible until you know more about the nature of their injuries.
If you will be treating wounds or administering first aid, it’s best to have someone help you restrain your cat. A thick blanket or towel is often the best way to pick up and move a cat, taking care to protect your hands from being bitten. This can also keep a cat warm and make them feel “hidden” so they feel safer.
If you suspect broken bones or a back injury, try to assess the cat prior to moving them. Place the cat on a board or in a sturdy box or bin for transport.
Always keep your own safety in mind. If you can’t help your cat without getting injured yourself, it might be best to skip first aid. Be especially careful when helping an unknown injured cat, since you don’t know their rabies vaccination status.
What to Know About Shock in Cats
What is Shock?
Shock means a cat’s blood flow to crucial organs is limited. It can be fatal very quickly, or cause permanent damage to body tissues and organs even if a cat survives. Examples of causes include severe blood loss, heart or lung disease, traumatic injuries, heatstroke, anaphylaxis, etc.
Signs of Shock in Cats
Symptoms may include rapid pulse or respiratory rates, pale gums, listlessness, collapse, or unconsciousness. Cats might appear distressed or withdrawn, and additional symptoms like vomiting could occur.
First Aid for Shock in Cats
Immediate veterinary care is crucial!
In the meantime, try to keep your cat warm (unless heatstroke is the cause) and calm. If breathing or heartbeats have ceased, CPR may be performed.
SEE ALSO: How to Travel With a Cat
When and How to Perform CPR on Cat
Much like human medical care, CPR in cats begins with the ABCs:
Airway: Check that the airway is open. Use a tongue depressor rather than your fingers in your cat’s mouth, and have good lighting. Try to remove any obstructions like vomit or foreign objects.
Breathing: If your cat isn’t breathing, administer rescue breaths. Place their head and neck in a straight line. Place your hand over your cat ’s muzzle while holding their mouth shut, or use a face mask designed for cats (some pet first aid kits include these) for a tight seal.
Blow into the nostrils a few times. Watch for a response. If your cat does not start breathing on their own, administer a few breaths per minute as part of CPR.
Cardiac function: Feel the chest just behind your cat’s elbow for a heartbeat. You can also learn to feel for a pulse on your cat’s inner thigh near the groin. If no heartbeat or pulse are detected and your cat isn’t breathing, you may begin chest compressions.
Your cat should be lying on their side. Press down on the widest, middle part of the rib cage, compressing it approximately 1 inch (for an average sized cat—adjust as needed for small kittens). Repeat this at a rate of 100-120 compressions per minute, while pausing to administer a rescue breath approximately every 30 compressions.
Unfortunately, most cats who require CPR don’t survive, because of the extent of their underlying illness or injuries.
However, in a cat who will otherwise pass away without CPR, there is no harm in trying. It might keep a cat alive long enough to get to the veterinary hospital for life-saving medical treatments.
When to Treat at Home Versus Seek Urgent or Emergency Veterinary Care
When in doubt, it’s best to seek veterinary care.
Some examples of conditions that should always warrant an emergency vet visit include being hit by a car, difficulty breathing, penetrating wounds into the chest or abdomen, broken bones, loss of consciousness, being unable to urinate, and many types of eye injuries.
If your cat seems stable, you can call a veterinarian’s office for advice. They can guide you on whether your cat needs to come in right away or not.
While many of the injuries discussed here are very serious and can be fatal, knowledge (of what to look for and how to administer first aid) is power. Prompt care can help many cats recover and continue living the life they love with their favorite human.