Steps to Care for an Unconscious Cat

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Emergencies in cats are common and when they happen, it is important to know basic skills of what to do. A cat that loses consciousness is a true emergency and needs to receive veterinary care as soon as possible.

Causes for an Unconscious Cat

There are dozens of causes for a cat to become unconscious and all of them are potentially serious and life-threatening.   Consciousness is a state of being aware of one’s surroundings and awake. Therefore the state of unconsciousness means a cat is not aware of his surroundings and not awake.

Some cat owners may confuse the terms of consciousness with comatose. Coma is defined as the absence of alertness or consciousness. Comatose cats are unresponsive to noxious or painful stimuli. Decreased consciousness or stupor is diminished awareness or alertness. Coma and stupor are serious medical conditions that should be addressed immediately by a veterinarian. Persistent coma is also called a persistent vegetative state.

Reasons for cats to be unconscious may include:

  • Seizure event – A seizure, also known as a convulsion, is caused by a sudden excessive firing of nerves in the brain. It results in a series of involuntary contractions of the voluntary muscles, abnormal sensations, abnormal behaviors, or some combination of these events. A seizure can last from seconds to minutes and can cause a loss of consciousness. Some cat owners don’t see the actual seizure but see the after-effects that can include loss of consciousness.
  •  Head trauma (usually motor vehicle accidents)– Head trauma is caused by a forceful injury to the head. The trauma can either be blunt (such as hit by a stick or car) or penetrating injury (such as from a gunshot wound). The injury can cause brain swelling, bruising, lacerations, compression, bleeding or skull fractures.
  •  Brain tumors – There are different types of brain tumors that can occur in multiple areas in the brain. Signs of a brain tumor can include any change in neurologic function including loss of consciousness, seizures, trouble walking, diminished coordination, change in behavior, and much more.
  • Hydrocephalus – Hydrocephalus is a neurological disease in which there is an excessive accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) within the ventricular system of the brain. Causes of hydrocephalus in young animals include congenital defects, intrauterine or perinatal infections, perinatal trauma, and central nervous system tumor. The most common cause of hydrocephalus in young kittens is a congenital defect.
  • Hypoglycemia – Hypoglycemia is defined as blood glucose or blood sugar concentration of fewer than 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl). Symptoms of low blood sugar in cats depend on how quickly the blood glucose concentration decreases but rarely do symptoms develop until it falls below 50 mg/dl. At this time symptoms include generalized lethargy, weakness, loss of consciousness, and seizures.
  • Heart failure –  Congestive heart failure is a condition, caused by an abnormality in the structure or the function of the heart, in which it is unable to pump normal quantities of blood to the tissues of the body. The heart is a pump, and when it fails, it often leads to fluid retention in the lung and the body cavities leading to congestive heart failure. This fluid accumulation can lead to shortness of breath, trouble breathing and difficulty breathing. Eventually, loss of consciousness can occur.
  • Chronic kidney failure – Failure of the kidneys over time can cause many different symptoms in cats including a decreased appetite, vomiting, lethargy, weakness, and eventually decreased consciousness.
  • Acute kidney failure– Acute kidney failure (also known as acute renal failure or ARF) is a more sudden onset of kidney failure that can cause severe symptoms such as drinking more, urinating more, decreased appetite, vomiting, lethargy, weakness and eventually decreased consciousness. This can be caused by toxins such as antifreeze.
  • Ketoacidosis (from diabetes)– Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is a severe form of diabetes that is caused by severe changes in blood chemicals. Symptoms can include lethargy and eventually coma.
  • Drug intoxication – Overdoses of prescription drugs, over the counter drugs, human medications, and illicit drugs can all cause many different symptoms including loss of consciousness in cats.
  • Other Toxins – Toxic substances or foods such as antifreeze or Easter lily toxicity can also cause symptoms that can decrease cat consciousness.

What to Do If You Find an Unconscious Cat

A cat that loses consciousness is a true emergency and should receive veterinary care as soon as possible. Call your vet or closest emergency clinic immediately.

Be prepared to answer questions. Your veterinarian will likely ask you several questions including What happened? How long ago did it happen? Has this ever happened before? Is there any possible exposure to toxins, drugs, medications, trash, or foods? Has there been any history of trauma? Has your cat ever had a seizure? Any exposure to plants such as Easter Lilies? Are there any underlying medical problems such as heart problems, epilepsy, kidney failure, etc.

Your veterinary team will probably recommend some diagnostic testing. This may include a complete blood count, serum chemistry including blood glucose, urinalysis, x-rays, and/or electrocardiogram (EKG). Advanced testing may include a  CT scan or MRI and/or a Spinal tap. This will all be depending on the clinical exam and history.

Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the loss of consciousness.

What Can You Do at Home for an Unconscious Cat

If your cat has a loss of consciousness, examine your cat to ensure they are breathing and have a heartbeat. You can often feel the pulse of the heart just over the chest by the below on the left side. You can observe breathing by looking at the chest wall for movement. While preparing to see a veterinarian, you may do the following:

  • Position your cat gently on their side and protect them from injury.
  • If you think your cat could be choking – please read: How to Protect Your Cat from Choking.
  • If your cat appears to be having a seizure, be careful. Do NOT put your hand in or near their mouth. They will not swallow their tongue. Protect them from injuries such as moving them away from water, stairs or other sharp objects.
  • If you believe your cat was poisoned, bring the container the toxic substance was in, if possible.
  • If you believe your cat was traumatized such as hit by a car, move them into a board, bedspread, or towel for transportation to the car.
  • If there is any bleeding, apply gentle firm pressure. Go to: How to Stop Cat Bleeding
  • If your cat is not breathing and has no heartbeat, administer CPR. Go to How to Do Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) on Cats.

We hope these tips help you know more about what to do if you have an unconscious cat.

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