The fainting cat

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A cat with pet health insurance lies in the grass.

By: Dr. Jane Matheys
Associate Veterinarian
The Cat Doctor Veterinary Hospital
For Pets Best Insurance

A client came to see me last week with her 4-year-old female cat named Lily. Lily was due for her annual examination and vaccination updates, but the owner was also concerned about something she had witnessed with Lily on two separate occasions, including an episode just a couple of weeks ago.

The owner described how one day she let Lily outside under supervision to get some exercise and fresh air. Lily started munching on some grass which is typical for cats. A short while later Lily let out a strange cry, vomited up the grass and immediately passed out, fell over on her side and stopped breathing!

Lily had fainted. Fortunately, she recovered after about 20 seconds, but you can imagine how terribly frightening that was for her owner to witness.

Fainting (syncope) in cats refers to a brief period of unconsciousness due to lack of blood flow or oxygen to the brain. The collapse that results from fainting may last from seconds to minutes. The brief event ends with rapid and complete recovery in most cases. Fainting is a clinical symptom of some possible underlying problem and is not an exclusive diagnosis. Because diagnosing pet health issues like these can often take time and can also be expensive, it’s a good idea for cat owners to research pet health insurance options in advance.

Disorders of the cardiovascular system are the most common cause of fainting. These can include an electrical disturbance in the heart such as an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) or a structural heart problem with the heart muscles or valves. Other conditions that can lead to fainting include severe respiratory disease or severe coughing, metabolic (body chemistry) disease, hormonal disorders, nervous system dysfunction, anemia and drug therapy.

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Lily fainted twice, and each time it was immediately after vomiting from eating grass.
Lily’s physical exam and lab tests were all normal. She had experienced what is called vasovagal syncope (fainting). This is not uncommon in cats and dogs, but it was the first time a cat patient of mine had presented with the complaint in over 20 years of practice. It’s also seen in perfectly healthy people. It’s not well understood by the medical experts, but it seems to involve an abnormal reflex reaction. Certain stimuli (vomiting in Lily’s case) affect the vagus nerve which has receptors in many areas of the body including the esophagus and stomach. This, in turn, causes an overload to a part of the nervous system leading to a rapid drop in the heart rate and blood pressure resulting in fainting.

In most instances, fainting is relatively benign, and recovery to normal is rapid. It is always best to notify your veterinarian, though, because in some cases, depending on the underlying disease and other factors, it can be life-threatening. For Lily, the force of vomiting seems to be the trigger for the vagovasal reaction. Naturally, then, I instructed her owner to avoid causing vomiting by keeping her from ingesting lawn grass. I recommended that she satisfy Lily’s craving for greens with organic wheat grass or oat grass instead, which generally don’t cause cats to vomit. I also told her to try leash walking Lily in the backyard so that she can still enjoy the outdoors while preventing her from eating grass and fainting.

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