Common Emergencies for Senior Cats

Published Mar. 5, 2014

By Lorie Huston, DVM

It can be quite frightening to see your cat suffering, especially if you are unsure whether the situation should be considered an emergency. When in doubt, always contact your veterinarian or the nearest animal hospital. But to hopefully better prepare you, here are some of the most common cat emergencies found in emergency veterinary hospitals around the country.

Choking, Coughing, And/Or Difficulty Breathing

Choking can be a serious problem, even if the symptoms resolve within seconds. Lack of proper oxygenation or the build-up of fluid within the lungs can be a dangerous consequence of choking.

Any difficulty breathing should also be considered a serious problem, requiring immediate evaluation by a veterinarian. Often radiographs are necessary to evaluate the lungs and airways.

Coughing is a vague symptom of several possibilities, including viruses, bacteria, fungal pneumonia, allergic bronchitis, or even congenital heart disease. Any compromise in your pet’s respiratory ability should be evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Vomiting and Diarrhea

Vomiting and/or diarrhea can be caused by many different things, including a sudden change in diet parasites, dietary indiscretion, infectious diseases, toxins, metabolic diseases, cancer, and more. Some cases of vomiting or diarrhea may be mild and self-limiting. However, persistent or severe vomiting and diarrhea can be problematic. Your cat can rapidly become dehydrated with these symptoms. Depending on the underlying cause, symptoms can drastically worsen in a matter of hours.


Trauma may the result of a being hit by a car, being attacked by another animal, falling from an elevated height, or any other type of accident. Trauma may result in blood loss, shock, broken bones, lacerations and other external wounds, internal bleeding, internal injuries, and pain. It may become life-threatening for your cat. If your cat experiences any type of trauma, he should be examined by your veterinarian, even if he seems unharmed initially. Complications from trauma are not uncommon and early intervention will give your cat the best chance of a successful recovery.

Toxin Ingestion

There are many substances that can be toxic to cats. Among the most dangerous are the plants known as true lilies. Antifreeze is another potential toxin that can be deadly. Cleaning chemicals, medications (both prescription and over-the-counter), garden products (fertilizers, plants, bulbs), chocolate, rodenticides, and insecticides are other potential toxins. If in doubt about whether a substance is toxic, contact your veterinarian for advice.

Foreign Body Ingestion

Cats are curious by nature, and even seniors can be playful. Any foreign body that is ingested can become problematic, either causing gastrointestinal problems such as intestinal obstructions or perforations, or getting stuck in the throat or trachea, causing choking and possibly suffocation. Linear foreign bodies are a particularly common problem in cats. These may include string, rope, ribbon, fishing wire, and other similar items.

Allergic Reactions

Cats can develop allergic reactions. Causes of these reactions range from vaccine sensitivity to insect bites. An anaphylactic reaction is the most serious form of allergic reaction. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, difficulty breathing, and collapse. Cats may also suffer allergic reactions that include facial swelling, hives and itchiness. Care is necessary if you suspect an allergic reaction in your pet.


Pain can occur in pets for several reasons and can be displayed in a variety of ways. Pacing, agitation, restlessness, panting, rapid heart rate, or even aggression, are all symptoms of possible pain. Arthritis, dental disease, and trauma are some of the most common causes of pain. If you believe your cat is in pain, seek veterinary help.


Seizures are episodes of abnormal electrical activity within the brain. They can be triggered by intra-cranial problems (such as epilepsy, brain tumors, or brain swelling) or extra-cranial problems (such as low blood sugar, electrolyte disturbances, etc). Any seizure can be life threatening.  Seizures can occur singly or in clusters, and can occur at any time and in any frequency. If your pet has a seizure, seek veterinary care as soon as possible.

Difficulty Urinating

Straining to urinate is a symptom of more than just a urinary tract infection. Many pets will strain to urinate if they have crystals or stones in their bladder. Inflammation, blood clots, cancer, or even stress alone can all cause difficulty urinating.  If your cat is straining and is unable to pass any urine, it is a life threatening emergency that needs to be addressed by a veterinarian immediately.


Lorie Huston, DVM


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