When Is It Time to Go to the ER?

Theyre expensive and have veterinarians you dont always know, and yet theyre a godsend for saving lives

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We’re all grateful for veterinary emergency clinics, but we’d all rather avoid visiting one. They can be costly and frequently busy, just like any emergency room. Still, it is important to have the contact information for your local emergency/after-hours veterinary clinic at hand, so that if your feline needs rapid medical attention, you have a plan. These clinics are, quite literally, lifesavers.

It can be challenging to know when to obtain emergency care for your cat.One feline mechanism of dealing with illness is hiding. It’s a vague sign, though, as cats also hide when they are stressed. If your cat is spending more time than usual under the bed, it might be time for a veterinary visit. But is it an emergency? Obvious instances of heavy bleeding, trauma, or non-responsiveness are clear, but otherwise, cats can be tricky.

Respiratory Problems

Difficulty breathing is an emergency. Cats can manifest this in several ways. They may be reluctant to lie down and may sit in the typical “Sphinx” position. Sometimes, they will hold their elbows out away from their bodies to improve chest expansion (this is called orthopnea) or breathe with their mouths open. A cat should never use its abdominal muscles to breathe, so if you see the abdomen moving in and out with breaths, this is a sign of distress. Do not wait to seek medical attention if your general practice veterinarian is not open. This requires immediate assessment.

Respiratory distress should not be confused with sneezing and congestion, which are typical in feline upper respiratory tract infections. These symptoms are rarely an emergency. If your cat is eating, drinking, and otherwise seems OK, waiting for your veterinarian is likely fine, but a call to your veterinarian to make sure can’t hurt.

Urinary Difficulty

Any signs of urinary difficulty should prompt an immediate examination. Often urinary problems are cystitis, an inflammatory condition of the bladder, or a urinary tract infection. In some instances, however, they can indicate bladder obstruction, especially in male cats. The signs are usually multiple trips to the litterbox, straining in the box or lying down, bloody urine, producing only small drops, or excessive vocalization while urinating. These clinical signs signal an emergency.

Poison Patrol

Known ingestion of a toxic substance is an emergency. Many medications, plants, and chemicals pose an immediate threat to feline health. Any time that you suspect your cat has ingested a poisonous material, do not wait to get treatment.

Well-known toxins for cats include lilies, antifreeze, and acetaminophen. With an unknown substance, consulting a poison control hotline such the ASPCA’s poison help line(888-426-4435), the Pet Poison Helpline (855-764-7661), or an emergency veterinary clinic by phone are good options.


Trauma is an emergency, even if there is no obvious external injury. Cats are stoic, and even though injuries may not be outwardly visible, internal injury is possible. This is particularly true of falls from even a few feet or being hit by a car. Internal injuries can sometimes take several hours to two or three days to manifest. Don’t wait for that. When in doubt, a physical examination is always the most prudent course of action.


Limping is not always an emergency, except with severe pain, crying out, or not using or dragging a limb. If a cat is weight-bearing but limping, there’s pain, but it may be able to wait until regular hours. If your cat seems otherwise comfortable and can walk, it is generally safe to wait for your general veterinarian. However, do not administer any over-the-counter medications, as very few are safe for felines.


In general, if your cat is eating, drinking, and acting normally, you can wait for an appointment with your regular veterinarian. In cases where a cat stops eating and drinking, begins hiding, exhibits signs of pain or distress, is profoundly lethargic or collapsing, is experiencing seizure-like activity, or has protracted vomiting or diarrhea, do not wait to have them evaluated. When in doubt, sooner is always better.

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Payment Problems

Emergency care is more expensive than regular veterinary care, and it’s not just the initial evaluation (office call). Costs escalate quickly due to the intensity of diagnostics, monitoring, and treatment required (two to three times the cost of regular care, according to pet insurer Healthy Paws).

Even if your cat is insured for veterinary care, most clinics require payment upfront, leaving you to be reimbursed by the insurance company. Do not be surprised if you’re asked to leave a deposit or billable credit card before your cat is seen.

If this could be a problem for you, it may be wise to either dedicate an empty credit card or funded savings account to pet care, or apply in advance for a “medical credit card,” which is a credit card that usually offers deferred or low interest for medical expenses, which may include veterinary fees.