Don’t be Fooled: How Much does Shock Look Like Death?

In a recent viral YouTube video, a Fresno firefighter1 finds a very young, lifeless kitten during a home fire. All of this was caught on the firefighter’s GoPro camera. In this video, you see Firefighter Cory Kalanick administering oxygen by mask immediately to the kitten, which is very important for treating smoke and carbon monoxide poisoning. He then uses cool water to cool and revitalize the kitten, only to find that the kitten does indeed respond and start squirming around actively.

Unfortunately, this kitten ended up succumbing to smoke inhalation1. That said, this video goes to show you several things: the kindness of firefighters who rescue four-legged creatures, and the potential “nine lives” of cats.

As an emergency critical care veterinarian, I’ve seen many a kitten or cat be presumed dead, only to survive. I’ve seen hypothermic kittens brought in from the cold snow by good Samaritans. I’ve performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on these lifeless kittens, “called the code” and stated that they were deceased, only to have the kittens be found alive 5-6 minutes later, after having the heat lamp left on them. While rare, these occasional miracles do indeed occur.

In another recent headliner, a cat named Bart crawled out of a shallow grave after being presumed dead upon getting hit by a car. This cat had severe injuries, including a bad eye injury that required later removal of the eye. The guardians buried this cat, assuming it was dead, and yes—it self-revived to crawl back out. (Unfortunately, recent controversy, reported by KY3, has speculated concern that these particular guardians may have suspected the cat was still alive).

How do seemingly dead cats revive?
The idea behind “nine lives” is unknown to veterinarians, but is unique to only cats (as compared to dogs). For some reason, cats have an uncanny ability to survive – with or without the best quality of medicine. For this reason, as a veterinarian, I hate “giving up” on cats. When I offer the best recommendations for treatment to pet guardians (which can often be costly and includes 24-hour care, intravenous fluids, life-saving nursing care and diagnostics such as blood work, x-rays, and an ultrasound), some must decline due to financial limitations. Still, I try to work within the pet guardians financial means, as again, some cats survive despite what we think they will!

For this reason, if your cat is ill, follow these tips:

  • When in doubt, always seek veterinary attention sooner than later. The sooner we can identify and treat a medical problem, the better for your cat and the less expensive for you.
  • When in doubt, if you’re not sure if your pet has passed away or not (like Bart’s case), please get to an emergency veterinarian or veterinarian immediately. In the least, we can use our stethoscope to let you know if the heart has stopped (which means that the pet has died and is no longer with us). Remember, a cat in shock may appear lifeless!

Don’t give up – if your cat is ill, seek veterinary attention, but know that cats do have nine lives and may survive with some good nursing care!

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.


  1. Bonghi, Gabrielle. "Viral Video of Firefighter Saving a Kitten Has a Sad Ending." N.p., 26 Sept. 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.