Now, don’t get me wrong…I absolutely LOVE my cats, but they have some bad bacteria swimming around in their mouths and on their claws. Normally, this doesn’t cause a problem.
However, when cats fight or play too rough, they can penetrate the skin with their claws or teeth. These punctures can be so small (like a pin prick) that we never see them. The fact that the punctures are so small is part of the problem. When a cat pierces the skin of another cat, or human for that matter, some of the bad bacteria get injected under the skin. The wound then closes rapidly due to the small nature of the wound and the fast healing capabilities of the feline. This is where the problem starts.
Bacteria are trapped under the skin because the puncture wound has healed too rapidly. They LOVE this warm, cozy, under-the-skin environment, and begin to multiply very quickly. From start to finish, an abscess can take less than 48 hours to fill and burst. Most owners don’t notice the abscess until it has reached this point. They are VERY painful for the cat and owners are likely to notice lethargy, decreased appetite, grumpy attitudes, as well as fever.
If caught early enough, treatment at home is simple. If your cat is willing, clean the wound with hydrogen peroxide or betadine solution a couple times a day. Keep the scab off so the wound can drain and heal from the inside out. Depending on the size of the abscess, this may take as little as two days on up to a week. Using a triple antibiotic cream or ointment is great for areas the cat cannot reach to lick. Although a little ointment won’t hurt if ingested, it won’t do the wound much good if it is immediately groomed off. If the wound is large or doesn’t appear to be getting better after treatment at home, a visit to the veterinary hospital is in order.
We see a lot of abscesses at the clinic where I work, especially in the spring and fall when cats tend to roam more. Once we have drained the abscess (which generally takes light sedation), we probe the wound to assess the depth and width of the wound. Abscesses can’t just be sewn up or the bacteria will start multiplying again so we install a Penrose drain (or what I like to call ‘The Noodle’), which is a long, hollow latex tube. A hole is opened up opposite the original abscess wound and the drain is pulled through underneath the skin and allowed to keep a channel open. This allows for drainage over the next day or so. We also use these openings to flush the wounds with betadine or other antibacterial solution.
After a couple days of flushing, we remove the drain and, if needed, continue to flush until the wound starts to heal from the inside out. It’s a good idea to keep scabs from forming until the wound is no longer oozing and is closing well inside.
Along with oral antibiotics, cats usually recover completely except for possible scarring.
Abscesses can get out of control quickly if they are not cared for properly. Case in point…
A client’s cat got an abscess on its right front paw. The owner let it go for too long without seeking medical treatment thinking it would get better. By the time she brought Muffin in to us, the whole leg was swollen and necrosing up to the shoulder. The bones and tendons of the foot were clearly visible through the wound.
She declined the doctor’s first suggestion to remove the leg. Opting for other treatments, such as oral antibiotics, was the owner’s choice. Unfortunately, there were no open wounds to flush and, therefore, no way to get inside to the root of the infection.
After a week of unsuccessful treatments we finally convinced the owner that taking the leg was the only option. We removed the infection-ridden limb but unfortunately for Muffin, it was too late. After several days, Muffin passed away because the infection had moved into the rest of her body. I can’t know for sure that Muffin would have survived even if we had initially removed the leg when the doctor wanted to but the cat’s chances of survival would have been much improved. The owner waited to long.
I cannot stress enough the importance of caring for any wounds your cat may receive especially if the wound was administered by another cat or even a dog. Don’t take it for granted that the cat will care for itself because that doesn’t always happen. Check any wounds several times a day, keep the areas clean, and get to a vet if you feel the problem is getting worse.