By Arnold Plotnick, MS, DVM, ACVIM
First Aid for Kittens
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.
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 future.
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 immediately.
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 kitten’s life.
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.