The Pet Corner: Cat bite abscesses should be treated immediately

Cat bite abscesses are one of the most common reasons cats are brought into the veterinary clinic, yet it is also one of the least known to cat owners. They come in all shapes, sizes and locations, which is probably why many cat owners are unsure what they are.

Cat abscesses are seen in almost every veterinary practice nearly every day.

Depending on the stage of development of an abscess, it can look very different. Initially, a cat owner may notice a swollen area that seems to get larger in just a couple of days. After some time, the abscess may begin to leak fluid or rupture abruptly causing an entirely different looking wound.

It is not unusual for a cat owner to believe their cat has developed a tumor or growth when they notice the initial swelling. A cat owner may also think their cat has been shot or even bitten by a snake if they notice the abscess after it has begun to drain blood, pus or a mixture of both.

The most common cause of cat abscesses results from being bitten by another cat. Rarely, but occasionally, a cat abscess may develop from a bite wound from a dog, rat or another wild animal. Cat abscesses occur most commonly because cats are notorious for fighting. The term cat bite abscess will usually apply in most cases.

Cats fight instinctively for territory. Un-neutered male cats are more likely to protect their territory and to suffer from cat bite abscesses. However, neutered males and female cats will defend and fight for their territory too, just not quite as large of a territory or as aggressively as an un-neutered male.

Having your male cat neutered will help reduce the likelihood of fighting, but not completely. The only sure way of preventing your cat from fighting is to keep them indoors. By nature, cats are nocturnal and they tend to fight more at night. At least confining your cat to the house at night will reduce the chance of your cat sustaining bite wounds.

Typically, cat bites produce tiny puncture holes which may go unnoticed because they are small and covered with hair. The small puncture holes heal and seal over very quickly trapping bacteria from the cat’s teeth under the skin. The bacteria multiply causing swelling, pain and production of pus.

If the site of the bite wound is on the main body which has loose skin, a pocket of pus will form, developing into an abscess. In bite wounds on the legs or tail, where there is not loose skin, the infection spreads through the tissues causing severe swelling and pain of the entire tail or leg.

If your cat has been bitten by another cat, it is possible to prevent an abscess. Antibiotics given within 24 to 48 hours of being bitten often prevent an abscess. It is not easy to know your cat has been bitten unless you witness the fight. If you notice your cat licking a particular area excessively, you should inspect the area for a possible bite wound.

Treatment for cat bite abscesses involves lancing the swollen area under anesthesia and draining the pus out of the abscess. Typically, the abscess is flushed several times with saline solution to help remove as much infection as possible. Your veterinarian may choose to place a drainage tube in the wound to allow for proper drainage of the infection.

If the abscess is not treated and lanced soon enough, it will usually burst open, leaving a much larger hole in the skin than when it is surgically lanced. Untreated abscesses cause the cat to become sicker and results in more infected tissue which may need to be surgically removed, called debridement.

Antibiotics are necessary to treat a cat with an abscess. Depending on the cat’s personality and the owner’s experience, oral liquid antibiotics are often easier to administer than tablets. Most abscesses will heal well and quickly with the appropriate treatment.

If you even suspect that your cat has been in a cat fight, see your veterinarian as soon as possible to ensure your cat lives a long, healthy, and happy life.

Dr. Jeff Castle is a veterinarian at Clark County Veterinary Clinic.