Now that spring is here, many cats will be spending more time outside. Thus, it is the unofficial start of abscess season. Cats most often develop an abscess due to fighting with (or running away from) another cat; although, any small puncture can potentially lead to an abscess. This means indoor cats can still develop an abscess, but it is less common. An abscess forms when a small puncture is made in the skin by a tooth, nail, or anything else small and sharp. Due to the small size of the puncture, the skin heals over quickly, and the wound does not have adequate time to drain, leading to an accumulation of bacteria, white blood cells and dead cells under the skin. An abscess can take anywhere from 3 – 7 days to develop.
How do you know if your cat has an abscess? The most frequent signs include fever, lethargy, inappetance, pain over the abscess area, and a foul-smelling drainage on the fur or skin if the abscess has ruptured. Depending on the abscess size and location, other clinical signs can include limping, formation of a lump/swelling, loss of fur, pain, hiding, and avoiding the litter box.
A cat with an abscess is usually pretty miserable. Luckily, most abscesses heal quite well with treatment. Treatment includes draining the abscess (if it has not already opened on its own), pain medication and antibiotics. Some larger or deeper abscesses will require the placement of rubber tubing to allow adequate drainage over several days so that the abscess does not reform. It is rare, but an abscess can become life-threatening in already debilitated animals, such as cats with FIV, cats on immunosuppressant medications such as chemotherapy or steroids, or cats with advanced renal disease. These cats can still go outside but should only be allowed out under direct supervision on a harness or in an enclosed “catio” area.
As cats are great pretenders (as in, they don’t look or act sick when they really are), we always recommend an exam for any cat not acting quite like its normal self!