One night, my kitten Ophelia climbed into my bed and began meowing and purring as if she were in pain. I scratched under her neck to comfort her and felt a small lump, but I assumed that the problem could wait until morning and went back to sleep. The next morning, I work up to find her listlessly lying on the floor with a baseball-sized swelling that stretched from her chin to her clavacle. I rushed her to the vet and learned that she had developed an abscess– a painful collection of pus caused by a bacterial infection.
Abscesses in cats have a variety of causes and symptoms; a veterinarian will choose a treatment option based on the severity of the infection and the cat’s medical history. If you believe that your cat has an abscess, take him the the veterinarian for an immediate evaluation. As I learned from Ophelia’s experience, a small abscess can quickly become serious. In some cases, the abscess can cause a life-threatening fever or a systemic infection.
Ophelia’s veterinarian explained that almost all abscesses in cats are caused by wounds from fighting with other animals. A cat’s claws and teeth are loaded with pathogenic bacteria; during an altercation, they inject these bacteria into the skin and soft tissues of an enemy. In some cases, these infected injuries are unintentional– Ophelia’s wound was inflicted during a play-battle with my other cat. Take precautions to minimize your cat’s exposure to aggressive or overly playful companions.
After a puncture wound, bacteria gather underneath the cat’s skin and begin reproducing. To prevent the infection from spreading to the bloodstream, the cat’s immune system draws white blood cells to the area and creates a pocket. This results in a massive amount of swelling and pain for the animal. While this defensive mechanism can prevent or delay the onset of a systemic infection, it is inherently painful for the cat and often causes a high fever. Cats whose immune systems are compromised by feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) are more likely to develop abscesses.
A sensitive owner may notice the symptoms of an abscess before it is large enough to visibly detect. Ophelia was tired and vocal the day before her abscess became serious; had I looked on her neck, I probably would have seen early signs of the abscess. In most cases, abscesses take several days to become serious, but they may develop within a matter of hours or even minutes. If you know that your cat has had a puncture wound, monitor her carefully to watch for the signs of an abscess.
Abscesses in cats usually involve a round, puffy swelling; these are usually very tender and your cat may cry out if you touch the area. Often, the cat will pull his hair out around the area. There may or may not be a “head”, depending on how much the swelling has progressed and how well the cat’s immune system is handling the infection. An abscess that has already begun healing will leak a yellowish, brownish or whitish fluid; this mixture of blood and pus leaves the cat’s body as the healing process begins.
Treatment options for an abscess in a cat will depend on how severe the infection is. In the case of small abscesses, veterinarian-recommended home remedies may suffice to minimize the cat’s pain. If the abscess is smaller than a nickel and has already come to a head, apply hot wash cloths to the area to encourage the pus to drain. Tea tree oil applications may penetrate the skin and help to eliminate bacteria, but do not apply tea tree to an open wound. Oil of oregano and garlic– applied topically or taken internally– may also boost your cat’s immune system. While Ophelia’s infection was far too serious to treat exclusively with home remedies, I used these methods as complementary treatments.
If an abscess is large or not draining by itself, your veterinarian will probably lance and drain the abscess; he may need to sedate your cat to perform this simple surgery. A veterinarian may also give your cat a steroid such as hydrocortisone or prednisone to minimize pain and fever; these are usually given in the form of an injection. In most cases, the vet will give the injection of broad-spectrum antibiotics, particularly if the abcess is severe. My veterinarian prescribed a topical cream containing silver sulfadiazine; yours may prescribe oral antibiotics instead of– or in addition to– topical treatments. Carefully follow your veterinarian’s instructions to prevent the infection from recurring.
As your cat recovers from his abscess, use common-sense precaution to minimize pain and risk to him. Because Ophelia was left with a large, open wound, we had to keep her isolated from our toddler and our two other cats for a few days. After touching, dressing or examining the area of your cat’s abscess, be sure to thoroughly wash your hands with hot water and soap. Many forms of bacteria that infect cats can also be contagious to human beings. Contact your veterinarian for a follow-up appointment if your cat does not seem to be feeling normal after several days.