Dr. Arnold Plotnick
Most kittens endure kittenhood relatively unscathed. A few, however,
deplete several of their nine lives in the course of growing up. Knowing
the principles of first aid can be invaluable in seeing that your kitten
survives that turbulent first year of life.
First aid is an interim measure before veterinary care becomes available.
The objective of first aid is to prevent the condition from worsening,
alleviate pain and suffering, and help the recovery process. Getting
veterinary help remains the highest priority. SEE ALSO: First Aid and
Your Cat: What to Do in an Emergency. April is "Pet First-Aid Awareness
Month". Owners that are aware of proper life saving techniques and
how they apply to our pets are better equipped to handle emergencies
as they arise.
The best way to treat emergencies is to prevent them. This is accomplished
by “kittenproofing” your home. Kittens get into everything – closets,
drawers, garbage cans, toilets, boxes, bags, sofa cushions, and more.
If you have children, go through your home and pick up all toys less
than two inches in length. Also pick up any coins, paper clips, rubber
bands, ribbons, string, tape, and other small objects a curious kitten
might swallow. Keep cleaning supplies and chemicals locked away. Be mindful
of electric cords, as kittens enjoy chewing on them, risking electrocution.
Household plants (fresh and dried) can be toxic. Make certain that your
windows are always closed, or are fitted with sturdy screens. Kittens
seek out high places, and an open window ledge can spell disaster in
the form of “high-rise syndrome”. The few hours it takes
to kittenproof your home may be the best investment in your kitten’s
Despite our best precautions, we may find ourselves facing a kitten health
emergency. The most common disasters that strike kittens are burns, electric
cord injury, choking, bee stings, fractures, and poisonings.
Burns: Most kitten burns are thermal burns from hot objects like heating
pads, heat lamps, or scalding by hot liquids. Kittens may jump onto stovetops
and burn their feet or tail. If your kitten experiences a burn, immediately
apply a cool damp towel to the area for 30 minutes. Cover with a loose
bandage and take to a veterinarian. Do not put ice directly on the area,
and avoid ointments, as they are difficult to remove.
Electric shock: Kittens are most likely to chew or bite an electric cord
because a dangling cord is seen as a perfect plaything. Many incidents
happen around the holidays. “The combination of Christmas lights
and kittens as Christmas gifts increases the chances of this emergency
occurring”, says Dr. Steve Baker, an associate veterinarian at
the Pet Care Clinic in Meridian, Idaho. “We encourage our clients
to kitten proof their trees, nativity scenes, and other holiday decorations.
Nobody wants to spend Christmas Eve in an emergency clinic as a result
of natural kitten curiosity”. Biting through an electric cord can
cause, at the very least, a painful electrical burn on the mouth and
tongue. These often become infected and require veterinary care. Severely
shocked cats may go into cardiac arrest or develop pulmonary edema (fluid
accumulation in the lungs). Kittens that chew through electric cords
should be taken to the veterinarian immediately, even if it only appears
to have minor burns on the tongue or mouth.
Choking: If your kitten gets something stuck in its mouth or throat,
it will cough or gasp suddenly. Kittens become frantic when scared, so
wrap him in a towel and have someone else hold him while you try to look
in the back of the throat. If an object is detected, try to spot it with
a flashlight, then remove it with tweezers or a spoon handle; your hands
will probably be too big for a young kitten’s mouth.
Bee stings: Kittens love chasing moving objects, including stinging bugs
such as bees. “Bee stings or spider bites are often suspected but
definitive diagnosis is uncommon unless the event is witnessed by the
pet owner”, says Steve Marks, Associate Professor and Head of the
University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine’s small animal
medicine service. If bitten by a bee, immediately put ice on the bite
to reduce pain and swelling. Try to find the stinger using a magnifying
glass, as some bees leave their stinger in the skin. Pull it out with
tweezers if possible. Clean the area and apply an antibiotic ointment.
After treating your kitten for the bee sting, monitor very closely for
an allergic reaction (called anaphylaxis). Although uncommon, allergic
reactions can occur, and the kitten can go into shock. The tissues of
the throat may swell and obstruct breathing, and blood pressure may plunge.
This is a life-threatening complication. “In most cases, symptomatic
care is appropriate. However, if the kitten has difficulty breathing,
vomiting, diarrhea, the pet owner should seek veterinary advice immediately”,
Dr. Marks says.
Fractured limbs: Orthopedic injuries are common in kittens because kittens
love to jump. When a kitten fractures a bone, the initial clinical sign
is limping, holding the injured leg up, or walking on only three legs.
Simple fractures (both ends of the bone remain under the skin) are not
as bad as those in which the bone breaks through the skin (open fracture).
The latter are at high risk of becoming infected. If you suspect a limb
fracture, try to apply a temporary splint to immobilize the leg. A pencil,
tongue depressor, or piece of heavy cardboard works well. To effectively
immobilize the leg, the splint must span the joint above and below the
fracture. For example, for a forearm fracture, the splint must immobilize
the limb from the elbow (the joint above) to the wrist (the joint below).
Wrap strips of clean cloth or gauze around the leg and the splint so
that the leg cannot bend. Do not try to manipulate the bones back into
place, and do not wash out open fractures. If the kitten becomes too
stressed during splint application, stop and take it to the veterinarian
Poisonings: The average household contains many items poisonous to kittens.
Common household toxic substances include ammonia, antifreeze, aspirin
and Tylenol, bleach, gasoline, lye, paint thinner, rat poison, turpentine,
rubbing alcohol, and others. Indoor and garden plants are a potential
problem as well. Kittens love to nibble on plants and dried flowers.
Some plants merely cause an upset stomach. Others can be fatal. Cacti,
dieffenbachia, mistletoe, poinsettias, acorns, English holly, tulip flower
bulbs, oleander, honeysuckle, and most types of lilies are poisonous
to some degree. A description of the specific treatment for each of these
household and plant poisons is beyond the scope of this article. Always
check with your veterinarian before giving or using any medication on
your kitten. Signs of poisoning will vary depending on the type of poison
and quantity ingested, but in general, you should be suspicious that
your cat has been poisoned if you see signs such as excessive salivation,
vomiting, loss of consciousness, or seizures. If you see your cat ingest
a toxic substance, read the label to see if specific instructions for
treatment are given. If not, induce vomiting using syrup of ipecac or
hydrogen peroxide, one teaspoon per 5 lbs body weight. Don’t induce
vomiting if a strong acid or alkali, or a petroleum distillate like kerosene
was ingested. Call your veterinarian and be ready to tell him or her
what the poison is, the active ingredients, how much was eaten, when
it was eaten, and what signs your kitten is showing, if possible. If
you need to visit the vet, try to bring a sample of the suspected poison
in its original container with you. If your vet cannot be reached, call
a local or national poison control center for further instructions.
First aid is not meant to replace veterinary care. Knowledge of basic
first aid allows kitten owners to effectively handle emergencies until
a veterinarian can be reached. Knowing the basics may someday save your
Sidebar: Seven Signs that Say “Get Thee to a Veterinarian”
Although some emergencies can be managed at home, others require immediate
veterinary attention. The signs below, if present, usually indicate an
emergency that requires immediate veterinary assessment.
Non-responsiveness – a non-responsive kitten is usually in serious
trouble. If you get no response or reaction when you call, stroke, or
touch your kitten, immediately check its breathing. Airway obstruction,
cardiac arrest, and poisonings are a few things that can cause non-responsiveness.
Labored breathing – respiratory problems require immediate attention.
Fluid in the lungs or the chest cavity can obstruct breathing, and kittens
can go into respiratory arrest, followed by cardiac arrest, if untreated.
Drooling profusely – electric cord burns to the mouth and tongue,
contact with household poisons or plants, and nausea from other systemic
illnesses can cause profuse drooling.
Incessant vomiting – serious electrolyte abnormalities and dehydration
may occur as a result of continuous vomiting. Intestinal obstruction
from a ribbon, rubber band, or string is a common cause of chronic vomiting
in kittens and requires immediate attention.
Profuse diarrhea – severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances
can lead to rapid deterioration in kittens if not addressed promptly.
Abnormal coloration of the gums – pale gums implies anemia; bluish
gums suggest a cardiac or respiratory problem, and yellow gums denote
red blood cell destruction or severe liver disease. All of these conditions
require immediate assessment by a veterinarian
Fever – fevers in kittens are often due to infectious conditions.
Fever increases a kitten’s fluid requirements, and often depresses
their appetite. Malnutrition and dehydration is a dangerous combination.
Kittens with fevers (temp greater than 103 F) should be examined promptly.