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Cat Abscesses: What Causes Them, and How Do Vets Treat Them?

Abscesses — painful infected wounds — usually require a vet visit. Quick, proper cat abscess treatment usually means a better outcome.

Photo of an angry cat about to fight
When cats fight, they can deliver a deep bite that can cause painful abscesses. Photo: ivabalk

Cat abscesses are a common occurrence.

They occur most frequently in the indoor/outdoor cat population because they are the result of cat fights. When cats fight, they can deliver a deep bite as well as digging their claws deep into the skin and muscle of their opponent.

Other less common causes of cat abscesses are bites from other animals or punctures caused by a foreign object. Cats can step on sharp objects, get impaled by fences, get stuck by a thorny bush, etc.

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What Is a Cat Abscess?

A cat abscess is an infection that festers under the skin and ultimately breaks open.

When your cat suffers a deep puncture, the skin is broken and bacteria are basically injected into the area. The bacteria cause infection and inflammation and usually cause a swelling at the area of the wound.

What Does a Cat Abscess Look Like?

Most abscesses look like a swelling under the skin. The size and texture of the abscess can vary greatly depending on a variety of factors, such as:

  • The depth and seriousness of the inflicting wound or wounds
  • The location on the body
  • The type of bacteria causing the abscess
  • The length of time before you notice the abscess
  • The health and FelV or FIV status of the cat

The swelling may be:

  • Small or large, or there may be multiple swellings
  • Covered with fur or have no fur at all on the swelling
  • Shiny or have an area with a scab

If the abscess has begun to open or burst, there will be drainage from the abscess. The drainage can be almost clear, bloody, blood-tinged or have pus.

Close-up photo of an abscess on a cat.
Here is a close-up of an abscess on a cat. The size and texture of the abscess can vary greatly. Photo: Eileen Kumpf

How Will My Cat Be Acting?

Here are a few more signs that your cat has an abscess:

  • Some cats show no symptoms at all and you are the one that discovers the swelling while you are normally petting your cat.
  • Lethargy: Abscesses often cause a fever, resulting in your cat acting sick. The cat may be sleeping too much or not eating.
  • Limping or painful. Abscesses on the extremities or near joints can be quite painful and cause the cat to limp. Other cats show no pain until you inadvertently touch the abscess — and then the cat lets you know there’s something wrong.
  • Licking excessively. Your cat may give you no indication that they have a wound or are in pain except for licking a specific area. Normal grooming is usually an all-over affair. Pay attention if your cat is excessively licking a paw, the tail base, etc. Chances are you will find evidence of an abscess.

Treating an Abscess on a Cat

Cat abscesses usually require a veterinary visit. Treating an abscess sooner than later usually means a better outcome for your cat’s health and your wallet.

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Here’s what to expect:

  • Your veterinarian will take the cat’s temperature and examine the abscessed area. Then a decision will be made about treatment. Mild abscesses in cats might be treated without sedation. If the abscess is minor and has already opened and is draining, the vet may be able to clean the wound and send your kitty home. Most abscesses, however, are more serious and will require sedation or anesthesia.
  • With the cat sedated, the abscess and the surrounding area are shaved. The vet will then lance the abscess with a scalpel and explore the extent of the wound/abscess.
  • The wound is flushed with sterile saline until it is as clean as possible.
  • Every abscess is a little different. Sometimes skin that is not healthy has to be trimmed away. Sometimes a drain is placed to keep the ends of the abscessed area open to drain.
  • Most abscesses are not sutured closed, but occasionally a large area must be partially closed with stitches.
  • Your cat’s rabies vaccine may need to be boosted.
  • The cat usually goes home the same day with a week of oral antibiotics.

Home Care for Your Cat’s Abscess

Your cat usually will feel much better after the vet has opened, drained and treated the abscess.

Most cats do not need extensive pain management. Home instructions usually include warm compresses a few times a day for 3–4 days and keeping the area clean. The compresses are usually all you need to do to keep the area clean.

If a scab forms over the abscess and it begins to swell again, warm compresses can soften the scab and you can usually remove it. Call your vet with any questions about the healing process. Pictures help!

Keep your cat indoors for the duration of the treatment. If the wound is particularly messy, you may need to confine the cat in a room with food, water, litter and bedding that can be easily washed.

If your vet prescribes an Elizabethan collar, please use it.

A follow-up visit in a few days or a week is usually recommended to make sure the cat’s abscess has healed. If a drain has been placed, it needs to be removed by the vet in 3–5 days. Sutures usually stay in for about 10 days.

Cat Abscess Treatment: When Things Go Wrong

Even if you follow directions carefully, some abscesses do not heal according to plan.

  • There may be resistant bacteria that are not responding to the prescribed antibiotic.
  • Pockets of infection may develop despite the initial treatment.
  • Your car may be older or FeLV-positive or have a compromised immune system.
  • Some abscesses in cats may invade the bone — in a leg or in the jaw, for example — requiring further treatment.
  • Abscesses in fat may heal very slowly. A common area of concern is when a cat gets bitten on the belly.

The most important thing to do is keep in close contact with your veterinarian in the days after initial treatment.

Report any of the following:

  • Ongoing lethargy or lack of appetite. This is not normal. Most cats healing from an abscess are feeling good.
  • Excessive drainage or pus coming from the abscess. Most abscesses stop draining after 1–2 days.
  • Continued swelling at the site or new areas of swelling.

The good news? Most cat abscesses heal fairly easily and quickly with proper treatment. If your cat has suffered a more complicated abscess, you might get frustrated and be making multiple trips to the vet. Ultimately, these nasty cases just need more time and treatment to have a good outcome.

References


vet-cross60pThis pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. This article was originally published in 2012 and was last reviewed for accuracy and updated Oct. 9, 2020.

If you have questions or concerns, call your vet, who is best equipped to ensure the health and well-being of your pet. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. See additional information.
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