Today’s topic is not for the faint hearted! Cat bite abscesses are a squeamish subject, but one which many cat owners have been challenged with. Unfortunately, these rather iffy injuries occur quite commonly in our feline friends – especially in those that roam outdoors and those that are unsterilized, as these factors predispose them to fighting.
How Does a Cat Bite Abscess Form?
When a cat bites and teeth penetrate the skin (especially the longer canine teeth), bacteria from the saliva enter the tissues below. Cats have small, sharp teeth so the bite wound itself typically does not look very dramatic, and vets often refer to these marks as the tip of the iceberg. Meanwhile, beneath the surface, bacteria multiply rapidly and result in infection of the underlying tissue. Within the first day or two following the fight there are often no signs of a problem. The initial puncture wounds usually close and are difficult to see below the fur, especially in long haired cats. Infection is effectively sealed inside with bacteria proliferating within, followed by inflammation and swelling of the affected area as an abscess starts to form.
What Are the Signs of a Cat Bite Abscess?
Usually signs will appear within a few days of the initial injury. First a swelling will occur, often quite rapidly. This swelling may initially feel firm but then become softer; and is generally very painful to touch. After this your cat may or may not develop a fever and lose their appetite. Lymph nodes located close to the injury may also become enlarged.
It can be difficult to find evidence of puncture marks without the hair being clipped away, and sometimes this is only possible with the help of sedation or anaesthesia to help with pain. As the abscess grows, the skin around the bite mark can become less viable and in time the abscess may rupture. After this, pain and signs of illness usually improve, but there is still a risk of the abscess closing again and recurring.
Cats with abscesses on the legs often present with signs of lameness, sometimes quite suddenly; and it is only upon further investigation that the abscess is found.
Where Do Cat Bite Abscesses Usually Occur?
The most common sites where cat bite abscesses occur can give us a clue as to what kind of kitty combat took place. If the wounds are present on the head and forelimbs your cat was probably giving as good as he got (you shoulda seen the other guy!); wounds on the armpit and abdomen suggest he was most likely on his back (the other guy was winning); and those present at the base of the tail show he was trying to run away (the other guy won)!
No matter how successful your cat may be in the art of war, the consequences of these antics are painful and can be expensive if they become a habit, as veterinary attention is usually required. Also, fighting puts your cat at risk for contracting other diseases such as Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (for more on this check out our blog on FIV). If there is a lot of fighting in your neighbourhood it is worth trying to find out if there is an unsterilized cat in the area as this may contribute to the problem.
How Do You Treat A Cat Bite Abscess?
It is advisable to take your cat to the vet if you suspect that he may have been involved in a fight. Early intervention may stop an abscess from developing. This will most likely include shaving and cleaning the site, starting an anti-inflammatory and possibly antibiotic therapy. Cat bite abscesses vary widely so clinical judgement is necessary to decide on a treatment plan for the individual. They range from being small and superficial in an otherwise healthy cat; too deep and extensive and causing severe illness which, in rare cases, may even be life threatening.
Once the abscess is established it will need to be lanced and thoroughly flushed. Usually this will require sedation or anaesthesia. In very minor or superficial cases, or where the skin above the abscess has started to die off, sedation can sometimes be avoided. Very cooperative cats make the process easier to perform but for their own comfort sedation is often preferable.
It is important that drainage continues after cleaning so for this reason incisions into abscesses are not stitched closed but left to heal naturally. In the first few days the site will need to be cleaned regularly.
A short course of antibiotics in generally required as well as medication to help with pain and inflammation. Sometimes fluid therapy is needed and your cat will need to go onto a drip; or if the abscess is large your vet may ask to keep your cat in hospital for a few days to continue flushing the wound, and prevent it from closing too soon when infection may still be present.
Cat bite abscesses are a common injury and usually respond well and quickly to appropriate treatment. Within just a few days your cat should feel a lot better. If this is not the case, it may be due to a complicating factor. These include:
A foreign body being present within the wound (such as a piece of tooth or claw);
The wound involving a joint;
The cat being immunocompromised; or
Infection with an unusual bacterium, which may require specific antibiotics(1).
Often your vet will request to recheck your cat two to three days after the initial visit so usually they will pick up on any potential problems at this stage.
Your cat will have to wear a cone for a few days to prevent licking the wound. Cat’s tongues are very rough and can traumatise the sensitive, healing skin; and also can reintroduce infection to the site. It is advisable to keep your cat inside for at least a few days so that you can monitor them, and also follow the cleaning and medication protocol as required (often our cats have other plans in mind, or even revenge!)
With the proper treatment and care, your cat should be fighting fit in no time, although hopefully without any more fighting!
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Cannon, M. (2013). Cat bite abscesses. In A. Harvey & S. Tasker (Eds.), BSAVA Manual of Feline Practice – A Foundation Manual (pp. 204-206). Gloucester, UK: British Small Animal Veterinary Association.