Cat Bite Abscesses

Pet Tales
       by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Spring is in the Air

There can be no mistake; we had a winter this year. The temperatures were low and the snow banks were high. I have said before, in my opinion, living inside is the safest way for our pet cats to live. For the winter months, this year, almost all cats were willing to live by this rule. Curled up in a chair by the fireplace or stretched out in the sun streaming in through a window was a great way to spend January and February. However, with the arrival of spring, the call of the outdoors beckons some cats. We should remember the health threats this may pose for our feline friends.   

The very first week that outside temperatures were above freezing for 3 days in a row, I saw three cats with bite wound abscesses. Such a problem is one of the most common to afflict cats who go outside. My first three patients this year to encounter the problem got off quite lucky. One had a torn ear and a puncture wound deeper in the ear canal. Another presented with multiple deep wounds over the lower back. Pus was draining from the skin punctures and had caused the hair overlying the area to mat together. Noticing this change in the hair coat was the first indication to the owner of the cat that something was wrong. The third patient had a very swollen front paw and was running a high fever as a result of a bite just above its footpad.

Each of these patients had their wounds cleaned and treated. The hair around the area of infection was shaved and the region cleaned with antibacterial soap and antiseptics. Deeper tissues below the skin that had become infected were also thoroughly cleaned and drainage was established for any discharge from the wound. Antibiotic treatment was begun to eliminate the bacteria causing the infection. Drugs can also be given to combat high fevers when they are present.

As mentioned, this trio received relatively minor injuries. Their owners recognized their pets were ill and promptly sought veterinary care. These factors impact significantly on the success and the rate of recovery from cat bite wounds. In my years of practice I have seen many cats with much more serious injury result.

It all begins when cats go outside. Most cats are very territorial. In an urban environment the chances are quite large that even if a cat does not stray very far from its own yard, it will encounter another cat. Sometimes that may be a stray tomcat trying to expand his territory for mating or hunting rights, sometimes it may be just another usually gentle cat that lives in the house next door. Regardless, cats possess some pretty impressive weapons for battle and they are not shy about using them, if circumstances dictate. Encountering a strange cat is often such a circumstance.

The fight that ensues is often quite brief but usually quite violent. Teeth that puncture the skin may create only a small opening in the skin but the bacteria, hair and dirt driven down into the wound along with the damage done in the deeper tissues makes it a great place for infection to develop. Immediately after the fight, unless bleeding or soreness at the injured site is noticed, the owner may have no idea such a health danger exists. The hair coat can cover up these initial injuries very effectively. Only a few days after the fight will the first signs of the problem be noticed. A painful bump or swelling may develop where the bites occurred. A limp may be noticed if a leg or paw is affected. The cat often loses its appetite, may seem grumpy or more quiet and withdrawn, especially if a fever has developed. These signs signal the need for help from your veterinarian.

It is also important to remember that receiving a bite from another cat is the most likely way for a cat to be infected with some very serious, life threatening diseases. Both the feline leukemia virus and the feline immunodeficiency virus are most easily spread in this manner.