Cats are fearsome little creatures in their own right. They can jump several feet in the air to catch birds and bugs, run at incredible speeds to chase critters through the yard, and land on their feet no matter how high the fall.
But despite seeming invincible, our kitties are susceptible to the occasional illness.
If you have a cat that ventures outdoors (or even an adventurous indoor kitty), it’s likely they’ll experience some scratches in their lifetime. And with scratches, scrapes, and cuts comes the possibility of infection—which can manifest as an abscess.
Read on to learn more about what causes an abscess, and what you can do if you suspect your cat has developed one.
What is a Cat Abscess, and How Do They Occur?
An abscess is categorized as a pocket of skin filled with pus, usually as a reaction to an injury. This can occur inside or outside the body.
With cats, the most common cause of an abscess is the result of a backyard fight. Cats are naturally territorial creatures, and they try to continually expand the boundaries of their territory. Even if they’re spayed or neutered, they will try to fight for the area around their home as best they can. That means run-ins with possums, raccoons, wild cats, and other animals, depending on where you live.
That said, your cat can also be injured by inanimate objects like sticks, fence posts, and thorns.1
Why Do Abscesses Form?
An abscess forms when bacteria gets into your cat’s wound. The mouths and claws of wild cats and other neighborhood animals contain colonies of bacteria that are transferred by bite.
Because cats tend to recover quickly, the new skin traps that bacteria in and heals over it. Eventually the infection under the skin fills with pus and puts pressure on the skin above it. The abscess may eventually open on its own and release infected pus, which can make the cat’s wound more infectious.
If left to run its course, cat abscesses can be dangerous. The infection can become internal instead of skin-deep and spread to other parts of the body, including organs.2 So if you see an abscess, or suspect your cat may have developed one, it’s important to notify your veterinarian right away.
How to Recognize an Abscess
An abscess can be hard to see in all that fur. Plus, since cats heal so quickly, you may never see a puncture wound in the first place.
It’s times like this we wish our feline friends could talk and simply tell us what’s wrong and where it hurts.
Fortunately your cat has their own language—and they’ll tell you they have an abscess in their own way. Here’s a few signs your cat is suffering from an abscess:
- They are more lethargic than usual.
- They are running a fever.
- Your cat is averse to normal petting or brushing activity, especially in a specific location.
- Your cat excessively grooms one particular area.
- Your cat is limping.
- You can feel a swelling on your cat’s body—either firm to the touch or compressible.
- There is an open sore or general swelling on your cat’s skin.
- The fur at the suspected site of infection is matted or missing.
- There is blood or bad-smelling pus at the suspected site of infection.
Cat bites most commonly occur on the head, forelimbs, or at the base of the tail. If you can’t seem to find an abscess, these are good places to start looking.
Any combination of these symptoms can point to an abscess. But as always, it’s safest to make an appointment with your veterinarian to confirm the cause of your kitty’s discomfort.
How Do I Treat a Cat Abscess?
Now that you know all the science behind what an abscess is, how it forms, and how to spot one in your cat, it’s time for treatment. There are things you can do at home to safely and effectively treat a cat abscess and keep it from spreading infection to other parts of the body while you wait for the vet visit.
If you can see the abscess, carefully trim away as much hair as you can. This will help you see the extent of the injury and allow you to keep the site clean. Be careful with the scissors while you trim, as your cat is likely to wiggle away when you get near the affected area.
Soak a clean towel in warm water and apply it to the injury. You can also use a warm compress. Try to keep it gently pressed against the wound for a minute or two at a time. Doing this a few times a day will help reduce swelling.
Use an animal wound and skincare wash to clean the affected area. Never use hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol on an abscess, as these will sting and can possibly cause further tissue damage to your pet.2
The skincare wash you choose should be:
- Non-toxic for your cat, even if licked or ingested
- Safe to use around the eyes, ears, and mouth
- Non-stinging and non-burning
- Beneficial to the healing process, by keeping the area clean and moist
- Ideally veterinary-recommended
A quality skincare wash will keep the area clean, flush out gunk, and prevent further infection. It’s a good idea to keep an animal wound and skin care wash on hand, especially if you have a feisty kitty: that way you can spray down any cuts or bites you happen to see, before they close up and seal in bacteria.
When you’ve completed these steps, you and your veterinarian will be able to see what kind of wound you’re dealing with. Check out our blog on how often should you bathe a cat to learn how to properly wash your cat and how to avoid irritating your cat’s eyes and causing conjunctivitis in cats.
What to Expect at the Vet
If your cat comes home war-torn, and they’ve clearly been in a fight, a vet trip can stop an abscess from happening in the first place. The right antibiotics given within 24 hours can eradicate potential infections. However, if it’s been a few days since the fight, it’s more likely an abscess will form.3
If you’re going to the vet for an already-formed abscess, here is what you can expect from your visit:
- Your vet will likely clean and flush the injured site in a similar manner to your at-home remedy
- The vet will likely sedate or anesthetize your cat to keep them calm and pain-free.
- Next, your vet needs to drain the abscess. They will remove the scabs over the original wounds or lance the skin over the abscess.
- In the case of a large abscess, your vet may need to remove all the affected tissues. This is called debridement. They will suture shut the new, clean wound.
- If any pus remains, your vet may need to place a surgical drain in the wound so discharge can leave the body
- Your veterinarian may prescribe an antibiotic for your cat to treat the bacterial infection. Common antibiotics include ampicillin, cefazolin, or amoxicillin-clavulanate.
- Your vet may also prescribe medication to manage your cat’s pain.
And that’s it! The worst of it is over, and you and your cat can return to the safety of home. You’ll both be glad it’s under control and no longer posing a threat to your cat’s health.
Post-Vet Trip Tips
Depending on the abscess, your cat may need some gentle aftercare. Follow these suggestions for proper cat abscess treatment.
- Keep your cat safely confined once you take them home. An ideal space may be a laundry room, bathroom, or mudroom—something with floors and walls that are easy to clean.
- Make sure their room is warm and dry. Place their litter box, food, fresh water, and comforting blankets within paw’s reach.
- If your cat was given a drain, keep it clean. Drains should be gently cleaned twice a day for 2-5 days or until the drain can be removed.
- If your vet leaves the wound open to drain, keep it clean twice a day for 2-3 days with gauze, cotton balls, warm water, or a vet-prescribed wound and skin cleaner.
- Make sure you give your cat their full course of prescribed antibiotics, even if they seem to be doing better after a couple doses.
How Long Does it Take for an Abscess to Heal?
Healing time all depends on how severe the abscess was in the first place.
- If it is a typical abscess wound, healing with proper treatment takes 5-7 days.
- If your vet placed a drain, healing may take a few days longer.
- If the abscess required surgery, tissues need about two weeks to heal. After that, any stitches will be removed.
If your cat’s not healing normally, you’ll want to head back to the vet for another check-up. Recurring infections may be a sign of viruses such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV). These illnesses suppress the immune system and may complicate the cat’s recovery from any infection.
Happy, Healthy Outdoor Cats
Bites, cuts, and cat abscesses happen to almost every feline that braves the outdoors. It’s part of their experience as a small but mighty hunter, surveying the area for prey and protecting your home from perceived threats.
While they carry out their guard-cat duties, you can ensure to be there for them when injury strikes. Whether it’s washing them down after a run-in with a skunk or keeping their skin clean and healthy, Vetericyn has you and your kitty covered with our line of vet-approved pet care.
Looking for more ways to care for cat issues? Check out our guide on how to heal cat burns.
- VCA Hospitals. Abscesses in Cats. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/abscesses-in-cats#:~:text=Abscess%20treatment%20depends%20on%20the,or%20by%20draining%20and%20flushing.
- Wedgewood Pharmacy. How to Properly Deal with Abscesses in Cats. https://www.wedgewoodpharmacy.com/blog/posts/how-to-properly-deal-with-abscesses-in-cats.html
- VCA. Fight Wound Infections in Cats. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/wounds-fight-wound-infections-in-cats