What is an abscess?

By definition, an abscess is a collection of white blood cells, decaying tissue, fluid, and usually bacteria in a pocket that has been walled off from the rest of the body.

Why did my cat get an abscess?

Cats are natural predators and are instinctively prone to protect their “turf” by fighting. With their sharp claws and teeth, it is very common for cats to inflict deep penetrating wounds in their adversaries. When their dirty nails and teeth penetrate the skin, they leave nasty bacteria below the surface of the skin and inside the muscles. These bacteria start to reproduce and spread throughout the tissue in which they were introduced. As they reproduce, they release toxins that cause the tissues around them to be killed.

As this happens, the pet’s body responds with inflammation, which brings more blood to the area. The increase in blood flow brings the white blood cells into the area that begin to fight the bacteria. Some of the white cells attempt to kill the bacteria while others try to make a thick wall around the battle zone to help prevent the spread of the infection to other parts of the body. This thick walled area filled pus consisting of red and white blood cells, dead and dying tissue and bacteria is called an abscess.

What are the symptoms of an abscess?

If the wound was caused by the prick of a claw, it may be difficult or impossible to see a wound on the surface of the skin. In the case of bite wounds, there may be small holes or scabs at the point of penetration. Unfortunately, with the thick fur of cats, many times, owners don’t realize that there has even been a fight until the abscess starts to form. During the first 1-3 days after the fight wound, the area involved will typically be warm to the touch and painful to the pet. The pet may seem depressed and not want to eat. Often times, they will seem “cranky” and vocalize when you touch or pick them up. Sometimes they will hide or just lay around. Frequently, owners don’t really know what is wrong specifically with their kitty, only that something is wrong.

As the days pass, the bacteria reproduce exponentially (very rapidly) and the amount of pus that develops in the abscess causes the area to swell significantly so that the owners can actually see it. Toxins from the bacteria spread through the blood stream and often times cause a fever in your pet. Hence your pet may feel warm to the touch. As the abscess grows in size, it exposes the tissues around it to toxins, which can kill them. In addition, as the fluid builds, it causes pressure on the skin around it. This chokes off the blood supply to the tissue and skin and eventually kills it. The dead skin becomes weakened and the abscess may rupture and release very nasty smelling pus from the wound.

How do our veterinarians treat abscesses?

If you know your pet got in a fight and is exhibiting the symptoms listed above. The first thing to do is bring them into the veterinarian. Frequently, if we catch the abscess in the early stages (before it has had a chance to build a shell around it) treatment with antibiotics alone may be enough to fix the problem. Unfortunately, once the abscess has formed, we generally have to open it up surgically and drain it in order to correct the problem.

The reason for this is that once the wall has been formed around the abscess, antibiotics have trouble penetrating into the area. In addition, the pool of pus deactivates most antibiotics. During the surgery, we will open up the abscess and remove the pus and debris in it. Often, we will take a sample of the pus and send it to the lab to find out what type of bacteria is causing the infection and which antibiotics will effectively kill it. Then, we cut away any tissue and skin that is dead or dying. Finally, we implant a plastic drain tube to allow any further pus to drain out of the body rather than reforming an abscess. We close the skin with stitches and place the cat on antibiotics for 7 to 14 days. The drain tube is usually removed in 3-6 days and the cat is sent home with a plastic “Elizabethan” collar to prevent the premature removal of the drain and/or stitches.

What can I do at home to ensure my pet’s recovery?

We encourage you to apply warm moist compresses to the wound 2-3 times daily during the postoperative period. This encourages blood to come to the area to help it heal. It also encourages contaminated pus to drain from the wound. You should keep the Elizabethan collar on your pet at all times during the healing phase. The medication must be given as directed and you should keep your pet indoors until the sutures are removed. If the wound begins to open up, smells bad, or doesn’t appear to be healing, as you would expect, be sure to bring your pet in for evaluation.

What is the prognosis for my cat?

Abscesses can be very serious diseases. Because they stem from fighting, frequently there can be damage done to the underlying muscles, bones and nerves. If left untreated, abscesses can readily kill your pet. When treated with appropriate surgical technique, 80-90% of abscesses will go on to heal in a couple of weeks. In some cases, the skin around the abscess may continue to die off, in spite of the surgery and the wounds may pull open. In this case, a second surgery may be warranted. Occasionally, an abscess is infected with bacteria that are resistant (can’t be killed) by the Antibiotic selected. In these cases, a culture and sensitivity test and addition of other antibiotics would be necessary.