Common emergencies in kittens

Kittens can have many of the health conditions of adult cats but there are a number of conditions more common or serious in kittens.

1. Trauma

Due to their size, kittens are a lot more prone to being stepped on or squished beneath falling objects and are more likely to be sAn image of a kitteneriously injured. Kittens feel pain more easily than adult cats.We would always recommend that a kitten showing any pain, breathing difficulties or behavioural changes after a traumatic incident should be seen by a vet.

The biggest and most common of the traumatic incidents has to be the road traffic accident and is the biggest cause of death for outdoor cats; cats under two years represent the majority of patients we see. Injuries are often severe and include broken bones, damage to the lungs, internal bleeding, head trauma or even death on impact. The only way to avoid this risk is not to let your cat outside. If your cat does go outside, having them microchipped is the best thing to do as it allows a vet to be able to contact you in an emergency.

2. Bite wounds

Kittens first starting to go outside often end up in territorial disputes with the established cats in the area. Bite wounds are very common and often require antibiotics to prevent or treat abscess formation.

3. Other gastrointestinal problems

As their immune system isn’t fully developed, kittens require more frequent doses of wormer than adult cats as they need to get rid of worms acquired while in the mother’s womb and through the milk. Large numbers of worms can cause intestinal problems including vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and weight loss. Worms are extremely common in kittens and a vet will be able to recommend wormers suitable for kittens.

Intussusception is a term meaning that a portion of the intestines has slid into an adjacent section and got stuck, much like sections of a telescope slide into each other. It is often very painful and may present as severe abdominal pain and collapse, along with vomiting and diarrhoea. Kittens suspected of having this condition should be seen immediately by a vet.

4. Respiratory problems

Respiratory problems are very common in young kittens, particularly those from shelters, rescue situations or from unvaccinated mothers. Sneezing, coughing, a runny nose, mouth ulcers, and conjunctivitis are all symptoms which form part of the ‘cat flu’ syndrome.

Inability to smell food or a painful mouth can stop a kitten wanting to eat. Any kitten struggling to breathe despite being at rest, or which has started coughing, wheezing or making abnormal breathing noises should be immediately assessed by a veterinary surgeon.

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5. Eye problems

Conjunctivitis is often related to cat flu as mentioned above. Scratches to the eye from over-exuberant play with another cat or during a fight can lead to conjunctivitis, with discharge from the eye, pain and squinting. It is also possible for seeds and other foreign material to get stuck in the eye. As eye problems can deteriorate very quickly, any kitten with eye problems should be checked immediately.

6. Vomiting / diarrhoea

Vomiting and diarrhoea are very common in newly rehomed kittens for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to: stress of rehoming, parasites included worms and amoebae, bacterial infections, viral infections (including the deadly parvovirus), dietary indiscretion and/or rapid changes in diet, vitamin deficiencies, toxins and congenital problems.

Small bouts of watery diarrhoea or a small amount of regurgitated food can often be treated at home by feeding a bland diet little and often, withholding all rich treats and titbits. Tepid water can be offered but should not be gulped. Kittens with vomiting and diarrhoea should still appear bright and normal at home.

Kittens with vomiting and diarrhoea should be seen by a vet if any of the following apply:

  • they are lethargic, not acting normally or not wanting to play
  • the abdomen seems bloated or painful
  • there is a large amount of fluid being lost through vomiting or diarrhoea, or blood is present
  • the vomiting or diarrhoea has not responded to a bland diet
  • more than one cat is affected, or a member of the family is also displaying symptoms

7. Foreign material ingestion

Kittens explore the world with their mouths – licking, mouthing and chewing virtually everything they encounter, and this behaviour can lead to a lot of trouble! Chewing electric cables can be life-threatening; any animal receiving an electric shock should be brought to the vet as soon as it is safe for them to be moved. Please contact your veterinary surgeon for advice immediately upon ingestion of any toxin or drugs as prompt action may be required to prevent long-term health problems. Never give human medications as even small amounts can be fatal due to a difference in the way they metabolise drugs.

Non-food materials getting stuck in the gastrointestinal tract happens less commonly than in dogs, but materials including wool or string are very tempting to kittens. Symptoms often include vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy and abdominal pain. Kittens showing these symptoms or who might have eaten material should be taken for a check-up as soon as possible.

8. Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction, is very rare but can be life-threatening if occurs. The two main causes in a kitten involve insect stings/allergic reactions, and vaccine/medication reactions.

For insect stings, swelling around the head/neck area should always be checked by a veterinary surgeon, as should any sting causing lameness or pain in the area.

Medication reactions, including vaccine reactions, are generally limited to lethargy and mild itchiness/tenderness at the vaccine site for 24 hours. True life-threatening reactions are extremely rare. Any kitten failing to respond to sound or touch, showing profuse vomiting after receiving medication, or showing tremors/seizure-like activity should be taken immediately to see a vet.