Bite-Wound Abscesses in Cats

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A bite-wound abscess forms when the body fails to clear germs and damaged tissue after a cat is bitten (by another cat or any other animal). An abscess is painful and can cause fever and tiredness until the infection is cleared up, which typically requires antibiotics and possibly surgery, depending on the size and severity of the infection.

Overview

An abscess is a pocket of pus that forms when the body’s immune system is unable to quickly clear a site of infection. Pus is a liquid collection of inflammatory cells, bacteria, and damaged tissue. An abscess can form in any part of the body and often results from bacterial infections in bite wounds, tooth roots, and anal glands. Bite wounds are especially predisposed to abscess formation due to the bacterial populations associated with dentition.

Bite-wound abscesses, infections that develop just under the skin, are quite common in cats who have access to the outdoors. In this subset of the feline population, bite wounds sustained from other cats (and sometimes from wild animals) often develop into serious infections that require immediate veterinary care.

Symptoms and Identification

A bite-wound abscess usually manifests as a painful, fluid-filled lump under the skin. Owners may notice a small scab over a puncture wound near the lump, but sometimes an abscess isn’t noticed until it breaks through the skin and oozes pus. Sometimes a cat develops a fever before the abscess is obvious and the only changes noticed are that appetite and activity level may have decreased.

The clinical signs of a bite-wound abscess may include:

  • Limping (if the wound is on or near a limb)
  • A lump or swelling
  • Redness of the skin
  • Hair loss in a circumscribed area
  • An oozing sore
  • Purulent discharge (pus) from a wound
  • Foul odor
  • Lethargy
  • Lack of appetite

Diagnosis is made based on the clinical signs listed above. Sometimes, however, a tiny bite wound in its earliest stages of infection may evade detection before it becomes a full-blown pocket of malodorous pus.

Veterinarians will often puncture a swelling with a sterile needle to obtain a sample of pus in order to positively identify the swelling as an abscess. Submitting a sample of the fluid to a microbiology laboratory for culture and sensitivity testing may be part of the diagnostic process in some cases.

Affected Breeds

There is no breed predilection for bite-wound abscesses in cats.

Treatment

Once an abscess forms, it’s very difficult for the body to remove the material and fight the infection by itself. Indeed, an untreated abscess can sometimes lead to deeper and more widespread infection. Therefore, a cat should be treated by a veterinarian as soon as the possibility of an abscess is identified.

Almost inevitably, antibiotics are employed to help fight the infection. Draining the abscess via surgical puncture and sterile drain placement is also typically undertaken as part of the treatment process. This frees the pocket of its infectious material and allows it to continue to drain as the antibiotics and antiseptics do their work. The drain is then removed within days of the procedure for healing to progress unfettered.

In some cases, antibiotics and continued wound care at home may be sufficient treatment. Routinely soaking or warm-compressing the area, if tolerable to the patient, is sometimes an effective substitute for surgery.

One of the biggest concerns with bite wounds in cats is the spread of infectious diseases like feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV, also known as feline AIDS), the feline leukemia virus (FeLV), and rabies. Only cats get FIV and FeLV, but rabies is a fatal virus that can be transmitted to humans. So it’s important to be aware that even if your cat’s rabies vaccination is up-to-date, state law may require your veterinarian to administer a booster vaccine if your cat has suffered a bite wound.

If your cat is overdue for or has not received a rabies vaccination, it’s even possible that your cat will be quarantined. Each region has its own regulations regarding rabies exposure and quarantine procedures. Veterinarians are prepared to advise cat owners about the laws that may apply.

Testing for FeLV and FIV may be recommended to determine if transmission of these viruses has occurred. Sometimes, repeat testing is recommended.

Prevention

The best way to prevent bite-wound abscesses is to keep cats indoors, as normal acts of territorial aggression among felines form the basis for this condition. Even though fights sometimes occur among housemates, transmission of infectious diseases like rabies is less likely among a group of vaccinated indoor cats.  If you do choose to allow your cat outdoors, be sure to keep your cat’s vaccinations up-to-date and check your cat frequently for bite wounds, lumps, or other injuries.

This article was reviewed by a Veterinarian.

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