Test Your Emergency IQ

It's a cat owner's nightmare: Something's wrong with your cat and your regular veterinarian is not available. You're left to make a judgment when your cat needs emergency care. Handling critical situations can mean the difference between life and death. Here are some common scenarios.

Circle all those you think require emergency attention, then check your answers.

1. Should you worry? Your cat:

a. just vomited undigested food
b. vomited for the fourth time today and seems lethargic
c. threw up a hairball
d. threw up and you see signs of blood

Correct answers: b and d.
"Owners should try to distinguish vomiting from regurgitation," says Ken Macquisten, DVM, of Abbotsford, British Columbia. "Regurgitation is a natural response to eating too fast." Vomiting, especially when accompanied by other signs, may be more serious. "If vomiting occurs more than once per day," Dr. Macquisten adds, "or has signs of blood in it, it should be investigated."

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2. Your cat appears to be choking. You should seek emergency help when:

a. it sounds like a hairball is on the way up
b. her mouth is wide open but she's making no sound
c. she's pawing at her mouth and taking big swallows
d. she collapses

Correct answers: b and d.
If your cat can't make noise, she probably can't breathe, and will die without immediate veterinary care. Fortunately, life-threatening choking is uncommon, according to Petra Drake, DVM, of San Francisco, California. "Most of the time," she says, "cats are able to expel a foreign body or mucus on their own."

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3. Which ones would cause problems if your cat ingests them?

a. acetominophen (Tylenol)
b. ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
c. acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin)
d. birth control pills

Correct answers: All.
"If an owner sees a cat ingest Tylenol, it is an emergency," Dr. Drake says. Ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are also toxic. Birth-control pills are the least dangerous, but ask your veterinarian's advice if your cat ingests many. (Did your cat eat something she shouldn't have? Click here to learn what you should do if your cat has an upset tummy.)

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4. You should take your cat to your veterinarian or emergency clinic if she is bleeding from:

a. a cut pad
b. a broken toenail
c. the rectum
d. the nose

Correct answers: a,c and d.
But even a bleeding toenail should be examined if it doesn't stop within five minutes. "A 12-pound cat can safely lose up to two ounces of blood," Dr. Macquisten says.

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5. Your cat jumped off the refrigerator. Which of these scenarios requires a visit to the veterinarian?

a. she won't bear weight on one of her legs
b. she's walking with a slight limp
c. she shook one foot violently, glared at you and walked away with a normal stride
d. one leg is now at a funny angle

Correct answer: a and d.
A limb that doesn't bear weight needs to be examined. "There are myriad reasons for limping," Dr. Drake says, "from a compound fracture or torn ligament to a broken nail or torn footpad." (Click here to read how you can keep your cat from jumping where she shouldn't.)

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6. Which of the following is the most serious?

a. your cat has gone three days without a bowel movement
b. your cat keeps straining in the litter box with no results
c. your cat has three bowel movements a day

Correct answer: b.
"Cats straining to eliminate may be either trying to empty their bowels or their bladders," Dr. Macquisten says. Constipation is uncomfortable, but a cat unable to urinate can die within 24 hours. An immediate veterinary examination is critical to determine the cause of the straining

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Post the emergency telephone numbers for your regular veterinarian and your local after-hours emergency veterinary hospital. You never know when an emergency may occur.

Veterinarians and their answering services know how to identify emergency situations. By asking a few questions, they will be able to help you take the right course of action. "A simple phone call," Dr. Macquisten says, "can often determine whether something is a true emergency or not."

To learn more about your cat's health
For more information on your cat's health, visit our Questions and Answers Section's Frequently Asked Questions. You'll find information about many common health concerns.