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What is Septic Shock?

Cats with impaired immune systems, very young or old cats, or cats with an underlying condition or disease are more susceptible to bacterial infection, sepsis, and progression to septic shock. Septic shock is an emergency requiring urgent veterinary care to prevent fatality. 

Shock due to bacterial infection (septic shock) in cats is a life-threatening complication of systemic bacterial infection (sepsis). Sepsis or septicemia is illness resulting from a bacterial infection that has moved into the animal's bloodstream, spreading the bacterial infection throughout the cat’s body. Once sepsis has occurred it can progress to septic shock rapidly as the immune system responds to the bacterial presence, producing substances to combat the infection, and the bacteria itself produces toxins. Theses substances and toxins cause blood vessels to dilate, resulting in lowered blood pressure and reduced blood flow to vital organs such as the kidneys and brain. The heart increases output to compensate but eventually weakens, lowering blood flow and oxygenation even further. In addition, the heart itself can be compromised by the bacterial infection. The result is organ malfunction and eventually damage due to lack of oxygen to the tissues. If blood vessels are also compromised and begin leaking, fluid builds up in tissues, causing edema. In the lungs, this results in respiratory distress. 

Symptoms of Septic Shock in Cats

Initial signs of septic shock include:

  • Disorientation
  • Shaking
  • Fever
  • Rapid pulse
  • Rapid breathing/panting
  • Decrease in urinary output

Symptoms of later stages of septic shock (characterized by organ and organ system failure) include:

  • Rapid or slow heart rate
  • Pale gums
  • Cold extremities
  • Low body temperature
  • Capillary hemorrhaging - small pinpoint red dots on tissues
  • Severe weakness
  • Lactic acid buildup in blood due to poor oxygenization contributes to organ malfunction from acidic blood
  • Kidney failure - kidneys decrease or cease production of urine
  • Respiratory distress as lungs fail
  • Heart failure resulting in edema and swelling
  • Blood clot disorder
  • Bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract

Causes of Septic Shock in Cats

Septic shock is a complication of sepsis, which occurs when localized bacterial infection has moved into the bloodstream (blood poisoning). Some animals seem to have a genetic predisposition to bacterial infection and immune system dysfunction. Genetic predisposition, organ dysfunction, or presence of illness or other medical conditions greatly complicate the progression of bacterial infection to sepsis and septic shock.

Conditions predisposing or causing infection in your cat include:

  • Postoperative infection from surgery
  • Septic pancreatitis
  • Conditions that decrease immune system functioning such as diabetes, Cushing's disease, chemotherapy treatment, high dose steroid treatment
  • Gastrointestinal disorder or disease- compromised GI tract lining or peritonitis
  • Urinary tract infection - common in male cats
  • Bacterial infection of heart lining
  • Pneumonia
  • Meningitis
  • Abscess in liver
  • Abscess from bite wounds.
  • Traumatic injury

Viral infections such as feline leukemia virus greatly complicate bacterial infection. Also, the type of bacteria and location of infection complicates the risk of sepsis and septic shock.

Diagnosis of Septic Shock in Cats

Diagnosis of septic shock is not always straightforward, as bacteria in the blood are not always easily detectable and cultures of tissues and fluids to determine the presence of bacteria take time to develop. Due to the urgency of septic shock your veterinarian may start treatment prior to a confirmed diagnosis of septic shock. 

Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical assessment and take a medical history of your cat, paying special attention to any conditions that would cause bacterial infection or that would predispose your cat to infection, such as immune system compromise.

Your veterinarian will perform a variety of tests to discover any underlying conditions that might cause bacterial infection. Blood count and blood chemistry tests, urinalysis, x-rays, echocardiograms, and ultrasounds will be useful in identifying an underlying cause.

Sepsis diagnosis can be determined by looking for indications in blood samples of abnormal levels of white blood cells, decreased oxygen levels, decreased platelets, increased lactic acid, and increased metabolic waste products in blood samples. In addition, fluid samples from tissues can be taken and cultures performed to determine the presence and type of bacteria. This information can be used to customize treatment specific to the type of bacteria present.

Treatment of Septic Shock in Cats

Treatment of septic shock is urgent as this is a life threatening condition. Hospitalization will be required and supportive therapy for treatment of shock will begin immediately. Intravenous therapy will be administered to increase blood pressure and medication to ensure adequate blood flow to vital organs will be administered. Oxygen will also be administered to your cat to increase oxygenation to tissues and organs. Antibiotic therapy will be started immediately. The type of antibiotic will be tailored to the type of bacterial infection and location, if possible. If this information is not available antibiotics treatment will be initiated and when test results are available the antibiotic treatment customized if necessary to the bacterial infection identified. Vasopressor drugs to constrict dilated blood vessels and improve blood pressure may be administered. Surgery to drain an abscess or remove dead, infected tissue may be required. Blood transfusion will be administered as needed. Septic shock is an urgent life-threatening condition and prognosis is guarded in spite of treatment fatality is a real possibility.

Recovery of Septic Shock in Cats

Prognosis and recovery of septic shock depends on the successful treatment of the underlying cause. Extensive follow-up intravenous therapy and specialized diet to ensure return to correct blood chemistry will be needed. Additional treatment for respiratory, heart, and organ damage that may have occurred may be required. Tests to check blood chemistry and urine and organ functioning will be performed until system functioning returns to normal. Depending on the procedures required during treatment, pain management may also be necessary.

Septic Shock Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

Domestic shorthair
One Year
Critical condition
0 found helpful
Critical condition

Has Symptoms

dehydrated, lethargic, not eating

I have a female cat who is almost a year old. I took her to the vet on Monday and she had 2 xrays done and it showed that she is severely constipated. The vet said she is dehydrated and needs plenty of fluids. They gave her fluids on her back so her body would absorb that. Then they gave her an enema. I took her home and have been continuing to her her fluids on her back like the vet did and gave her one more enema. It seems she passed a piece of plastic she must have ingested. She seemed to be doing better, but today Thursday she is very disoriented and can barely keep her head up and her eyes open. Is there something else I should be doing to make her better, or does she need to go back to the vet?

I would call the vet now and ask.

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1 Week
Critical condition
0 found helpful
Critical condition

Has Symptoms

Fever, low to 0 on glucose,

We lost a cat in July 2018 she was fine that evening her breathing was labored and couldn't move I took her in and in 24 he she died. No idea what killed her. Aug 2018 we got a kitten she was all up to date on immunizations from the humane society perfectly healthy. This last week same thing happened she was fine and then we found her laying on her side. She was in pain and I took her in Dr said bacterial infection. She had the exact symptoms as our first cat. She lasted 4 days we lost her. Why and what is making our cats have these symptoms. No more cats till we figure this out.

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Tabby mixed
8 Years
Serious condition
1 found helpful
Serious condition

Has Symptoms

Breathing Difficulty

I have a 8 year old female, I noticed a lump on the right side of her face....2 days later she stoped eating then she went missing for 2 days...I found her hiding in the shrubs...When I picked her up she had a very smelly mouth, abscess??...I called the vet as soon as I found her but they couldn't come out due to Easter holidays...She isn't eating or drinking..

Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
3319 Recommendations
Without examining Coco it is difficult to confirm the cause but it is possible that there is an abscess present; you should keep her indoors and try to keep her hydrated by using a syringe and possibly mix some smooth wet food with water and syringe it slowly to the mouth. If your Veterinarian will not come out, you should visit an Emergency Veterinarian for an examination. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

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7 Years
Serious condition
0 found helpful
Serious condition

Has Symptoms

not drinking
Not Eating

My older cat has had an infection in her eye that we have treated multiple times. It's been over the course of a few years. Now she has pus coming from her vagina. What can we do?

Dr. Michele King, DVM
Dr. Michele King, DVM
1610 Recommendations
Freya's eye infection and current problem are not likely related. If Freya is not spayed, she probably needs to be, as cats are prone to uterine infections. If she is spayed, she may have an infection or problem with her bladder or urogenital tract. Either way, she should be seen as soon as possible by your veterinarian to determine what might be going on, and how to go about treating her.

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8 Years
Serious condition
1 found helpful
Serious condition

Has Symptoms

Vomiting, seizures, hiding

My cat was diagnosed with this and given a shot but is hiding and having seizures. He survived the night but am terribly worried about the outcome despite the vet saying not to write him off. What do you think his chances of survival are at this stage? I can't take him back to the vet until the morning.

Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
3319 Recommendations
It may take some time before you see any improvement, however it is not possible for me to give a prognosis without examining Buddy and determining the overall severity. You should return to your Veterinarian in the morning for a follow up examination and if he is seizing during the night, it may be worth admitting him for observation. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

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