Hi, Dr. Barchas,
Yesterday we noticed our outdoor cat, Whiskers (whom we refer to as Whiskey), had an abscess on his left cheek. He is not lethargic; he is eating well and seems very much himself. A couple of years ago he had an injury and we were given Clavamox antibiotic for him. We have been giving him 62.5mg of the Clavamox, cleansing his wound, and putting a triple antibiotic ointment on it. We have kept him indoors since finding this.
My daughter was brushing him yesterday and he turned his head into the brush to scratch his cheek. When he did this, he scratched the abscess and it began to ooze — which I thought might be a good thing. The oozing has since subsided.
Since we cannot afford any vet visits at this time, should we attempt to continue to drain Whiskey’s abscess ourselves? Is this is a reasonable course of action?
I sincerely appreciate your help.
Abscesses are common medical problems in outdoor cats. Your story reminds me of a case I saw and a joke I made many years ago when I was a much younger and dumber vet.
A woman and her teenage daughter came to my clinic with their indoor/outdoor cat, who had an abscess on one shoulder. I explained that abscesses occur as the result of fights. Cats’ needle-sharp teeth, like all animals’ teeth, are coated with bacteria. When a cat bites another animal or person, those bacteria are injected deep into or under the skin.
Because the small entry wounds from the bite heal quickly, the bacteria are trapped underneath the skin. The bacteria that are common on cats’ teeth (if you’re curious, they’re called Pasteurella multocida) thrive in sealed-up environments where no air is present. The bacteria multiply rapidly, and the cat’s immune system sends in white blood cells to fight them. The white blood cells turn into pus as they die; then, ironically, the bacteria begin to thrive in the pus. The area swells as more pus forms, and an abscess is born.
In short, cats get abscesses when they fight.
The woman was incredulous and insisted her cat was not a brawler. I advised her that the abscess was solid evidence to the contrary. She pushed back. Surely, she said, there had to be other ways for cats to get abscesses?
“Ma’am,” I replied, “there are as many ways for cats to get abscesses as there are for teenage daughters to get pregnant. The ways are different, but the number is the same.”
As soon as I said it, I realized I might have made a serious blunder. The joke did not exactly reflect a high level of professionalism. Would the woman complain to my boss?
I got lucky. She doubled over in laughter. I think she was less amused by my joke than by her teenage daughter’s reaction to it. The girl went pale as a ghost, flushed a robust pink, and finally progressed to a vibrant purple. She scowled and cursed at her mother, who laughed even harder in response. I was spared an unpleasant conversation with the management.
I treated the abscess by lancing it and draining the pus that harbored the infection. I prescribed antibiotics (Clavamox 62.5 mg orally twice daily for a week, as it happens) and painkillers. The abscess resolved, but I reminded the cat’s owner that fighting also spreads FIV/feline AIDS. I recommended keeping the cat indoors and testing it for FIV in six weeks.
Shelly, I absolutely recommend that your cat be seen by a veterinarian. However, the treatment for an abscess is to drain it and to administer antibiotics — as you have been doing.
It turns out that my joke was also slightly inaccurate. Cats can rarely develop abscesses from foxtails, penetrating injuries, or dental disease. Fighting is by far the most common cause, but it is not the only one.
If my professionalism lapses in the future, I will have to change my joke. Abscesses are like pubic lice. There’s usually just one way to get them, but theoretically you can catch them from toilet seats as well.