Ask a Vet: What Causes Sudden Facial Swelling in Cats?

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A reader of my website named Jamie recently contacted me about her cat.

I have an outside cat. I left for work one morning and she was fine. I came home for lunch the same day and I noticed that her forehead was swollen. I took her to a vet, but he was not much help. Now it is spreading and getting bigger. Please help.

I get a lot of questions over the Internet, and often my knee-jerk reaction is to think, “Why are you wasting time asking me instead of taking your cat to the vet?” Jamie did, in fact, take her to the vet. Good for you, Jamie. I’m just sorry that it didn’t work out.

Here is what I believe is happening. When an outdoor cat develops a swollen area, it’s an abscess until proven otherwise.

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta
Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

Abscesses occur most frequently when cats develop a locally overwhelming infection. In cats, there are two common types of abscesses. The second-most-common type of abscess is a dental abscess. Such an abscess usually occurs as a result of longstanding dental disease that spreads to the root of a tooth. Swelling occurs in the area, which can cause marked distortion of the jaw or cheek, but not the forehead.

Therefore, I hypothesize that Jamie’s cat has the most common type of feline abscess: the so-called cat-fight abscess.

Outdoor cats are prone to fights with other cats. Many outdoor cats spend much of their time looking for fights. Even those cats who don’t like to fight still may end up tangling with another cat who is itching for an altercation. Abscesses occur when cats are bitten by other cats during fights.

Cats’ teeth, as I’m sure you are aware, are long and sharp

Cats’ mouths, like all mouths, have large populations of bacteria. When a cat bites, bacteria are injected deep into the tissues that are bitten.

Because cat teeth are like needles, the entry wound caused by a cat bite will be small and may heal quickly. At first, a cat bite does not seem like a big deal. But when the entry wound heals, the bacteria introduced by the bite are cut off from oxygen. That’s a good thing for them, but not the individual who has been bitten. A common type of bacteria in cats’ mouths, Pasteurella multocida, thrives in environments where there is no oxygen. A raging infection often occurs.

angry-cat-teeth-shutterstock_15354943.jpg
An angry cat hisses by Shutterstock

One to three days after the bite, the infection may begin to manifest itself. The area will become swollen, and it often will be painful. Some, but not all, cats may become lethargic and lose their appetites. Some cats may have a fever.

These early (so-called incipient) abscesses can be hard to diagnose. The entry wounds may have healed, leaving no sign of a cat fight. The classic pus pocket that occurs later in the development of an abscess won’t be there. I’m guessing this was the case when Jamie’s cat was evaluated by the vet.

As the abscess progresses, the body sends white blood cells to the area to fight the infection. They become overwhelmed and die. Dead white blood cells in large quantities are what pus is made of. Therefore, as an abscess matures a palpable pocket of fluid — pus — develops.

If left untreated, the skin overlying the central area of the pus pocket usually becomes devitalized due to pressure and poor blood flow. It loses its integrity, and in most cases the abscess eventually ruptures when the pressure of the pus pocket breaks through this section of skin.

Cat-fight abscesses rarely are fatal to cats. Humans who are bitten by cats are at significant risk of death from infection if they do not receive medical attention. However, they are painful and they can weaken outdoor cats, increasing the risk that they will fall victim to predation.

scaredy-cats-2-fight-38536192
Cats brace for a fight by Shutterstock

Therefore, cat-fight abscesses should be treated with antibiotics and pain killers. If a pus pocket is present, the abscess should be lanced so that the pus can be drained from the site.

Although there is a high probability Jamie’s cat has a cat-fight abscess, cat owners should be aware that other problems also can cause sudden swelling. Embedded foreign objects (such as foxtails) often cause swelling and may cause abscesses. Penetrating injuries with sharp objects such as thorns may introduce infection in a fashion similar to a cat bite.

Other possible causes of sudden swelling of the face or other body parts include trauma to the area, bleeding into the tissues of the area (a so-called hematoma), and even tumors that have become irritated or infected.

Jamie, your cat needs another trip to the vet. It is likely that by the time another vet examines her the situation will have declared itself sufficiently for a diagnosis to be reached.

Learn more about your cat with Catster:

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

35 thoughts on “Ask a Vet: What Causes Sudden Facial Swelling in Cats?”

  1. My cat Hobbes got very sick a few months ago, stopped eating and has labored breathing. A trip to the vet diagnosed him with congenital heart disease and he was put on Lasix. Ever since then random parts of his body keep swelling. Often it’s one of his front paws but once it was his eye and once his chin. The area swells up for a day and then goes away. It happens about once or twice a week. He seems mostly unbothered by the swelling when it occurs. I took him to the vet during one of his swollen paw days and the vet thought it was a spider bite despite me telling him that it had happened previously. Since it’s been a few weeks now and it keeps happening despite us moving to a new apartment during that time, I don’t think they are just bug bites. I’m not sure what to do.

  2. My cat's right cheek has been swollen for two days. It's a really hard swelling, not like a pus bag that I would've expected.
    I've been trying to get her in to a vet for that whole time, but EVERY vet (I've called 10 of them including emergency vet clinics) is at capacity and can't see her…the earliest appt is ten days from now! Our regular vet was closed all last week due to a Covid exposure, so they are swamped trying to catch up now.
    I've just come from the pet store and they don't have FishMox, so I'm going to order it online. I am very worried at this point. At least she is still eating wet food (ignoring the kibble she usually loves) and drinking water.
    So, it's all well and good to be told to see a vet, but I've tried and none are available.

  3. My 21 year old cat woke up this morning with hard, chubby cheeks, we have checked her for dental infections, there’s no pain when she eats or when we stroke her cheeks.
    Last time we took her to the vet’s (an animal charity hospital) was 8 months ago for dental treatment, the cat carrier, journey, and being poked by strangers caused her to be really stressed and as a family we agreed not to take her back to the vet’s unless it was to say goodbye to her.
    Right now she seems happy, eating, drinking, going to toilet, so we don’t know if this is another sign of her age or something more sinister

  4. Catnip and gabapentin are both safe to use for pain in cats. I would recommend breaking a gabapentin up very small as cats are no where near our weight. And crushing it up in water and cat food gravy and giving it in small amounts. I’m a back door veterinarian. I have 30 cats and no income ,but I do my best. Due to liability issues These vets can’t reccomend anything. Dont try to lance it yourself, please. Let it go down naturally as you can’t be sure what it is and infection is always worse on them and tiniest holes can infect. Warm/ cold compresses, lots of love. Benadryl is also safe for use and its a antihistamine. Look up dosages per pound on the internet. It gives dosage for gabapentin as well. Those are the only pain remedies I use. Catnip is dependant on them being able to eat it. I know ppl will be like what? But I hate seeing ppl asking for pain remedies in cats and being told to to the vet in covid times where no one can afford one. I’m dealing with a 1 year old with a cat bite abcess myself. And the internet has been a godsend. I’ve cured so many cats at this point I should be a cat veterinarian. I hope this info helps. As always make sure you know the cats weight and look up the correct dosages of these meds as you don’t want to overdose your pets. You can put catnip on their bedding, in their food, and you can’t overdose them on that. They also make catnip spray available at Wal-Mart. I have used both for their bedding and dry nip in their food. Amoxicillin is the best antibiotic for them if your unable to reach a vet. Doses are put up on the internet for amoxicillian too. Antibiotics and pain relief are your best bet.

  5. Elizabeth Mosqueda

    My cat is an outdoor cat, she’s about 6-7 months old and there has been a cat coming around looking for a fight. The cat attacked my cat a few days ago. But left no sign of injuries. Also, she has been sneezing for the past two days, later she was playing around with a dirty fabric we left outside that had vomit. Of course I had to take her a bath so she could be clean. I used fur control shampoo and rinsed her with water. The next day, her neck or chin was swollen and felt like a bump. Every time she coughs she sounds in pain. I don’t know if it was the cat fight or the nasty toxins of the vomit. I wish i could take her to the vet but it’s expensive. Please help me with information or any antibiotics that could help.

    1. You can go to a pet store and get Fish mox it is amoxicillin and it’s an
      antibiotic that will fight the infection its about 32.00 however you can find it online as well.. you need to give it to your pet 3 times a day. depending on the weight of your cat 10 to 20 pounds 2 pills a day split between 3 treatments for 7 days or until infection is completely gone.

      It is the same as the meds they give humans and it will not hurt your pet I gave it to kittens that had a cold and it worked very well for them they were found with infestation of fleas and matted eyes, were malnorished I am happy to say they all lived and found homes..

      hope this helps

    2. I also wanted to say that if your cat has had shots/ vaccines as far a feline leukemia she/he can not catch it.
      I read a few things on here and they were saying or talking about cancer and the cat eventually was put to sleep
      I believe the cat was not given the adequate dosage of meds the vet should of prescribed meds as well a cat or animals needs seven days or more of treatment and it did not sound like the vet prescribed anything which
      could of been the case an infection can cause lethargy and swelling and eventually leak into the cats body causing toxicity or death
      the Vet she went to seems to be lousy and she should of asked for meds even though the vet said the cat had cancer, some vets think they know everything and they don’t know half as much.
      just ask Dr. Pol
      He’s a brilliant vet.
      unless a vet takes a blood test to determine exactly what your animal has a biopsy or scan not visual but ultrasound even then a biopsy or blood test is best do not believe their every word.

    3. Hi I saw your post about your cat sneezing and swollen face. Can I get a follow up please on how you handled it, or did your fur baby turn out okay??

  6. Randi L Ferren

    My 13 year old cat has a possible infection in his cheek due to tooth abscess. He lost his fang about 6 months ago. His cheek swole up twice the size overnight and his eye is almost shut. I have an appointment Friday morning, but wondering what I can do until then. I don’t want to lose him.

  7. We have a cabin in the woods and people frequently drop off cats. The latest one was attacked by something larger, maybe a coyote. He had puncture marks on his neck, across his nose and on his ear. He was fairly feral so he had to get used to us before we were allowed to touch him. We put antibacterial cream on his neck and ear. It healed right up. Started him on regular cat food and he gained weight and looks like he should but with scars. His cheeks are both swollen but we’re not sure if he acquired this from his encounter or if ear mites (which I suspect he has) are the problem. (Likes his cheeks rubbed and scratched but would rather you not bother his ears.) He’s housebroken now and home with us after several months of care at the cabin. Going to get him fixed soon but keeping him quarantined from my other four cats (all rescues too) until he is fixed and checked out. Which do you think is more likely the cause of the cheeks, ear mites or the bites? Also not sure how old he is. thought he was younger but he is very independent and has been on his own for a while based on his attitude.

  8. 6yr old out door indoor male , was a big fighter, last Sept his jowls got huge he broke them open and we cleaned and it was good it’s now may they are back and hard and his eye sight seems weak,,, is there a home remedy? To help him ,,,I just saw yesterday he has a top gang tooth missing, he still eats lots etc,,, I’m so saddened and need advice,,, please I just lost job ,,,can’t afford a vet 60$ just to open door and the bloodwork and just his time in my town would run me 500 or more please help. Ty

    1. I have a similar situation as far as not being able to pay for a vet and a cat (stray) that seems to have dental problems. The only “advice ” I hot when calling around for help was to call animal control who will put him down. No one cares. They want money. Poor kitties…I’m so sorry.

  9. My indoor/outdoor cat had a large amount of swelling on her neck and chin. She never lost her appetite, but it eventually began to interfere with her eating – she had trouble swallowing food and would eventually vomit what she had just eaten. Her breathing also became very labored, her meow was raspy & quiet, and she was very lethargic. I took her to the vet and he said that she wasn’t running a fever, so there was no reason to believe the swelling was due to an infection. He gave her an injection of Depo Medrol and within 24 hours, the swelling was gone and she was back to her old self again. What do you think could have caused the swelling? As I mentioned, she’s an indoor/outdoor cat and sometimes encounters random neighborhood cats, so I’m wondering if she got in a fight and was bitten. But wouldn’t that have gotten infected? Or could it be some underlying issue/disease that isn’t easily detected?

    1. My kitten about seven month now has a swollen left jaw from nowhere. They are inside cats. His still eating but I’m worried. His not making any noise but his quiet anyway his still playful with his brother. What can I get for him I know the sneeze a lot and their eyes a watery at time. The vet is expensive so what can I do

  10. My cat repeatedly gets swelling on one side of his face, by his cheek, below his eye. It happened the first time some weeks ago, when he managed to push out the window covering and get outside. At first I thought he either hurt himself in his grand escape or got into a fight during the short time he was outside. The swelling went down in about three days but about a week later it was back. It went down again in the same amount of time and returned about another week later. This is the fourth time that his face has swollen now. He doesn’t appear to be in pain and I don’t feel a lump or fluid build up when I touch it. It doesn’t seem to cause him to change his behaviour but I’m concerned about the recurring nature of it. Any ideas of what could cause this?

    1. Did you find the reasoning behind this? It’s currently happening to my cat as well. Almost exactly. Goes away by morning but then comes back one week later.

  11. I appreciate it when you said that abscesses in cats can cause swelling and weakening, but they are not dangerous enough to be fatal to them. Although that is a relief, I still do not like the idea of seeing my cat to weak and helpless. She is an outdoor cat, and now she doesn’t even want to stand up because her face hurts too much. Regardless of how dangerous it is, I will be sure to take her to the vet for a checkup.

  12. I noticed my cats eye was watering and his nasal bridge is swollen. He’s eating and drinking fine, purring and seems fine in himself. Do you think he’s been stung by a bee or eaten one or is this more serious?

    1. Hi Laura,

      We suggest reaching out to a vet for a specific diagnosis. It might help to read these articles before you take your cat to the vet:
      https://www.catster.com/cat-health-care/watery-eyes-in-cats-what-causes-watery-cat-eyes-do-you-need-a-vet
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/cat-eye-discharge-whats-normal-and-whats-not
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/what-are-the-possible-adverse-effects-of-bee-stings-in-cats-and-dogs

      1. Can you tell me what the point of this site is and why you ask for comments and questions if all you’re going to do is suggest a trip to the vet? Many of us CAN’T go to the vet! Or even a human doctor. That’s why we ask for advice and help.

  13. I have a male indoor/outdoor cat that came in the other day and he’s been dleeping since. He refuses food & water. His cheek seems to look swollen but no visible bites or scratches. His eyes look like there turning farsided but he can still see. He can hardly move, he looks very lethargic to me. What could be wrong?

    1. Hi Savanna,
      Thanks for reaching out. We suggest taking your cat to the vet ASAP for a checkup. Hope your kitty feels better.

  14. My cats ledt side of his upper lip is swollen and there looked like a white spot over his long sharp tooth. It also looks really red and os tender to thw touch. I just noticed this tonight when I checked on him before bed.

  15. My cat is a indoor/out door male I noticed his right side of his face was swollen and his eye was closed yesterday he drank a little milk then today it was swollen even more tonight when I went to check on him he threw up what looked kinda bloody and it looks like his swelling has went down a little his meow is not normal and he’s acting funny he hasn’t ate anything in two day only drank a little milk yesterday its the weekend so I’m going to take him to vet hopefully in the morning is there anything I can do for him until I can get him in?

      1. I don’t know why all of you cat owners are wasting your time here when the only answer you are getting is take your cat to the vet. Thanks for the pedantic responses.

        1. Hi there Jeff,

          Thank you for your feedback. Here at Catster, we do our best to share content that is helpful for our viewers. When people have specific problems with their cats, we recommend seeking help from veterinary professionals. If you have a specific issue, you can contact us directly through this link: https://www.catster.com/meet-team-catster

        2. Well in my case it’s because he is a stray that decided this was his home and I’m on disability and can’t afford to pay hundreds of dollars for the vet!

  16. It’s Sunday and I just looked at my cat and his whole side of his jaw is ballooned. I just said OH MY GOD. What can I do tonight to help him with the pain. I will take him to the vet first thing tomarrow. Please he is really hurting . Ican tell by the way he meows and his look . Thank you

    1. Hi Tampa — We suggest going to the vet ASAP! In the event that you are unable / unsure about getting your cat to the vet, please call your vet or another emergency hotline. Hope your kitty is doing better.

  17. I also have an outdoor cat that just came home with swelling under her chin. There are no other marks that would suggest she’s been in a fight and she is acting/eating normally. She doesn’t seem to be in any pain amd was fine 4 hrs ago. Could this be anything other that a cat fight abcess?

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