Health & Care
A cat with a bandage on his head.

What Is a Cat Abscess and How Do You Treat It?

Does your cat have an abscess? Where can abscesses form on cats, and why are felines so prone to getting them? And how is a cat abscess treated? Answers to that and more!

Jackie Brown  |  Apr 26th 2018

Your cat’s skin is the largest organ on her body, serving to protect against bacteria and other invaders. If bacteria or other organisms become trapped beneath the skin, they can grow and cause an unpleasant infection called an abscess. So, what is a cat abscess exactly? How do you identify a cat abscess and what do you do to treat it? Let’s learn more here.

First, what is an abscess?

Close up of a cat abscess.

Close up of a cat abscess. Photography © Eileen78 | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

“An abscess is a pocket of pus, usually caused by a bacterial infection,” explains Ari Zabell, DVM, DABVP Sr. Director of Client Experience and Advocacy, Banfield Pet Hospital based in Vancouver, Washington.

Why are cats especially prone to abscesses?

Although all animals and humans can develop abscesses, cats are particularly prone to them. “Abscesses often have two causes that are fairly specific to cats,” Dr. Zabell says. “One, that they tend to fight each other with their very sharp teeth and nails, which can quickly and easily puncture skin; and two, a cat’s skin heals quickly. After a puncture wound from a fight with another cat, their skin tends to heal over the wound and trap bacteria introduced by the bite or scratch.”

Once trapped under the skin, the bacteria will grow. The warm environment beneath the skin is ideal for bacterial growth. The body tries to fight off the invaders with white blood cells, but everything is trapped in a pocket under the skin. “The pocket gets bigger and spreads under the skin, which can prove very painful for the cat — sort of like an ingrown toenail or a big pimple on a person,” Dr. Zabell explains.

How do you identify a cat abscess?

An abscess is a soft, painful lump under the skin that feels warm to the touch. A puncture wound near the lump may or may not be evident. Depending on where they are located on the cat’s body, and whether your cat is very fluffy, abscesses may be quite obvious or they might be hidden from view. This is yet another reason it’s a good idea to give your cat’s body a once-over every week to feel around for lumps, bumps or anything out of the ordinary.

A cat abscess can be found anywhere on the body (including in and around the mouth due to tooth infections), but abscesses that are the result of a cat fight are often found on the head, face, neck and shoulders (for cats who stood their ground against their attacker) or on the rump and tail area (for cats who chose the “flight” option of the phrase “fight or flight”). Other common abscess sites include the back and legs.

Treating a cat abscess

A key part of treating a cat abscess is antibiotics. You can’t just give your cat some pills and be done with it, though. First, your vet will need to perform a small surgical procedure to open up the pocket of infection and flush it out with a cleaning solution so it can drain. “Your veterinarian may also recommend pain relievers, anti-inflammatories and topical medications to relieve any discomfort,” Dr. Zabell advises.

Draining a cat abscess

Sometimes, the vet might place a drain to temporarily keep the skin from healing completely. A drain is a small, flexible tube that is inserted inside the pocket under the skin and then sutured in place.

“Drains are a tool that we sometimes use to slow the healing of the skin and help ensure any remaining bacteria in the abscess pocket continues to have a way to drain,” Dr. Zabell says. “This is more important with abscesses on the back or other locations that don’t naturally drain very well.”

Drains look a little scary and the fluid that drains out of them can be gross and a bit of a mess, but they don’t hurt your cat and they will ensure the infection can heal completely. “Your veterinarian will most likely give you a disinfectant liquid to clean the drainage holes,” Dr. Zabell explains. “Follow the directions carefully and don’t let the skin or scabs heal over the drainage holes.”

While the drain is in place, don’t let your cat (or any other pets) chew or otherwise bother the drain. If necessary, your vet can provide an Elizabethan collar (an e-collar, otherwise known as the dreaded cone). Your vet will tell you when to bring your cat back in to have the drain removed — don’t attempt to do this on your own.

“Call your veterinarian’s office if anything related to the drain or the healing process doesn’t seem to be going according to plan,” Dr. Zabell says. “Your veterinarian can advise on what’s ‘normal’ and help you determine whether your cat may require additional care.”

Thumbnail: Photography by Tuzemka / Shutterstock.

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