How to Treat Cat Abscesses at Home
Home Care and Remedies for Cat Wounds
I feed several stray cats from my neighborhood. Quite a few of them will even let me carry them around and treat them like babies. The rest just run like mad at the sight of me. One of the cats I feed showed up the other day with a wound on the back of his neck. It looked like it went all the way down to the bone, and the gaping hole had fur hanging to the side. I called the vet and ran the cat in to see what could be done to minimize the poor thing's suffering.
The vet explained to me that the cause of the gaping wound was most likely an abscess that had burst. The vet then explained how a cat gets an abscess, how to care for the abscess at home, and how to know when a vet’s medical attention is necessary. In this article, we will take a look at the following:
- The definition of a cat abscess
- Abscess symptoms and types
- Why they form
- How they are diagnosed
- How to treat a cat abscess at home
- Necessary supplies and cat handling
- When to see a veterinarian
What Is a Cat Abscess?
An abscess is a localized infection of the skin. It is generally characterized as a pocket of soft tissue that is filled with pus. They often result from bites or scratches endured during cat fights (e.g., between intact males) or from puncture wounds (from fangs, scratches, or pricks).
Cellulitis and Abscess Formation
Cellulitis is the preliminary stage of abscess formation. It generally occurs in tight areas of skin if the infection is deep. The area will be warm, tender to the touch, and hard. In the case of such infections, cats will often present with a fever and stop eating. A sebaceous cyst may also resemble an abscess and/or cellulitis, but is much rarer in cats and occurs when a hair follicle or pore becomes clogged and inflamed.
Cat Abscess Symptoms
Many abscesses may be accompanied by the following:
- localized soft, painful swelling and tenderness
- necrotic tissue (dead tissue)
- foul-smelling discharge from a wound
- lethargy and loss of appetite (inappetence)
Types of Cat Abscesses
Cat Fight Abscess
Biting and scratching from a fight. Needle-like canine teeth puncture skin and create a chamber for bacteria proliferation.
Head, face, and neck.
Inanimate objects—nails, thorns, sticks—can puncture the skin and introduce anaerobic and aerobic bacteria.
Anywhere on the body.
Often requires CT or radiograph imaging—affects the gingiva, tooth root, or pulp and is often characterized by fever and difficulty eating.
Cheek swelling or intraoral irritation.
How Do Cat Abscesses Form?
The vet explained to me that cats' claws and teeth are filthy and are as sharp as tiny needles. Cats dig into dirt to go potty, and they scratch up and down just about anything they can find—from dead critters to moldy trees.
Fight Wounds Introduce Bacteria
Cats tend to be very territorial, and they fight using claws and teeth, which carry a lot of bacteria. A cat’s skin is also thick—especially an outdoor cat. When a cat’s needle-like claws or teeth go into another cat’s skin, dirt and bacteria get pushed in along the way. When the cat’s claw or tooth is pulled back out, the other cat’s thick skin seals together over the hole and traps the dirt and bacteria under the outermost layer of thick skin.
Now, what do you think happens when the skin closes up over the germs and dirt? That’s right—an infection springs up and festers under the skin. This infection may include anaerobic bacteria (requiring low-oxygen conditions), aerobic bacteria, mixed bacteria, and fungal spores. The most commonly identified infections include Pasteurella multocida, an aerobic bacterium commonly found in the mouth of cats, Fusobacterium, Prevotella, E. coli, and Clostridium spp. The infection continues to progress under the cat’s skin until:
- It fills with pus, bursts, and sometimes leaves a gaping hole.
- A vet lances the wound to allow the bacteria and pus to exit.
How a Vet Diagnoses a Cat Abscess
Most cat abscesses are the result of bites or scratches from an attacking animal. Most abscesses will be found on the cat’s neck, front legs, or the tail/rump area. You should have your veterinarian look at your cat's abscess to rule out other conditions like vaccine-associated feline sarcoma (feline-injection site sarcoma) and especially to treat cats with preexisting conditions like:
- Feline Immunodeficiency Virus or FIV: FIV progresses quite similarly to human HIV and is an immunosuppressive virus and condition. It is generally transmitted via deep bite wounds (particularly between intact male cats).
- Feline Leukemia Virus or FeLV: FeLV is another immunosuppressive condition resulting in anemia or lymphoma. It can be transmitted via saliva and blood.
Diagnosis and Treatment
An exam at a veterinary clinic is often necessary to determine what kind of wound care your cat will need. Some veterinarians may choose to do a culture and sensitivity test to determine which type of stubborn bacteria they are dealing with and will choose an antibiotic or medication accordingly. A bacterial culture will allow for the type of bacteria to be identified, especially if your cat is indoor-only, which makes for an unusual case.
Anesthesia and Surgery
Some cats may need to be anesthetized for treatment—especially in severe cases where an abscess won't resolve on its own and can't go untreated (or in the case of a dental abscess). Some deep wounds may require the implantation of a temporary drain and sutures. In addition, a complete blood cell panel (CBC) may be ordered as well as blood chemistries to assess overall health and severity of the infection.
Tips on How to Treat a Cat Abscess at Home
If you are like me and you live on an old farm, you end up with numerous outdoor cats. You simply cannot afford to take them to the vet for every boo-boo. A vet’s treatment is always the best option for severe conditions in cats.
The good news is that most abscesses often resolve on their own—they will burst open and drain. But what happens when they don't? A cat’s skin heals from the outside in, meaning the new skin can close over the wound and trap dirt or germs that are still in the wound, putting the cat at risk for another abscess.
How to Help a Stray or Outdoor Cat
With an outdoor or stray cat, it isn’t always possible to bring the cat indoors for a few days to start the healing process. An outdoor cat might yowl to get outside, he might spray your home, and he might claw up anything within his reach. So how can you help a poor animal even if you cannot afford a trip to the vet? You cannot just ignore the problem and hope the wound heals on its own. The odds of that happening are minimal.
Supplies for Treating Cat Abscesses
- Rubber gloves (medical grade)
- Sterile saline
- Vet wrap (optional)
- First aid scissors (bandage scissors)
- Medicine droppers or 3-6cc syringes (no needle!)
- Antibiotic ointment (vet-approved)
Can I Use Hydrogen Peroxide on My Cat?
Hydrogen peroxide may have many beneficial uses for wound care, but unfortunately, it should not be used on cat abscess and abrasions. In fact, hydrogen peroxide slows wound healing and damages skin cells or fibroblasts—the active connective tissue cell that helps tremendously in wound healing.
Use Sterile Saline
Always work with your vet when discussing at-home wound care. Sterile saline is a much safer alternative that can be used for wound debridement and wound flushing. It can be found in most first aid sections at the drug store.
Video: Vet Speaking About Cat Abscess Care
How to Clean a Cat Abscess Wound
If you have an indoor-outdoor or outdoor cat (especially if immune-compromised), you may want to house them indoors until the wound heals to avoid contamination.
My vet suggested I do the following for an outdoor cat that seems to be eating and behaving normally who cannot be brought indoors. Use the supplies in your cat first aid kit and any antibiotics or medications your vet may prescribe as directed. Perform the above steps 2 or 3 times a day for 3–4 days:
Step 1: Use a Warm Compress
If the abscess has not yet burst and it appears to be causing your cat great discomfort, place a hot washrag over the abscess GENTLY for 10 minutes a few times a day until it opens and drains. DO NOT make the water so hot that it burns the cat. If it hurts your hands, don’t use it. You may need to reheat the washrag several times to keep it warm enough. Don’t be surprised if the cat fights this step the entire time—he is uncomfortable, and the swollen abscess is very tender.
Step 2: Trim the Hair Back
Try to gently trim away as much fur as possible from around the wound. This step will keep the fur from trapping dirt and germs that may enter the wound. You can use a grooming set of clippers or a small pair of first aid scissors with blunted ends.
Step 3: Use Light Pressure
Wear gloves for this step. Once the abscess is draining, you can help the discharge escape with light pressure. Be sure not to push too hard, or you will hurt the cat. I choose not to do this step because I am afraid to hurt the cat. I let the wound clear on its own while gently wiping the area with a warm washrag to remove germs and other debris. Once the wound is finished draining, you can proceed to the next step.
Step 4: Lightly Irrigate the Wound
Clean the wound out with warm, sterile saline. I use a baby medicine dropper or a syringe (without the needle of course!) to slowly and gently irrigate the wound.
Step 5: Apply Vet-Approved Antibiotic
Apply a thin layer of antibiotic ointment after the wound has had time to dry.
Step 6: Only Bandage With Veterinary Assistance
Some people may try to place a bandage or vet wrap over or around the wound to keep it clean if the wound is large, but if done incorrectly, further complications can develop. Most outdoor cats are not going to let you bandage them—heck you may be lucky just to get the cleaning solution in the wound.
Step 7: Assess the Wound
If a scab appears to be growing too fast and you are worried it might trap bacteria under it, you may need to debride the wound during cleaning—this consists of reducing some of the scab to let the wound heal from the inside out.
Keep in mind that the area may be painful. A soak of sterile water will soften the scab so it can be slowly and gently removed in a less painful manner. If the wound ever gets to this point, consider seeing the vet. If the scab has been on for a couple of days already, LEAVE IT ALONE.
Your Safety Comes First
Do not put yourself in danger. Cat bites can result in a trip to the emergency room and require intense medical care. If a cat is seriously in need of help, contact animal control or transport them to a veterinary clinic.
Tips for Handling a Cat Safely
- Consider fear-free restraint: If the cat won’t let you hold it for treatment, try wrapping it in a towel (firmly but lovingly) to avoid getting scratched!
- Wear gloves: Use rubber gloves to prevent getting an infection of your own, should you have any open skin from paper cuts or scratches.
- Do not attempt to lance it: Many people want to know how to lance or rupture a cat abscess. This should be left for the vet to do due to sterility concerns.
- Use food to your advantage: Food is an excellent motivator for food-driven cats. Use it to your advantage. If you are slick enough, you can pet the cat while it eats and apply the cleaning solution and ointment this way. My cats are on a feeding schedule of twice a day—morning and early evening to avoid the raccoons. My injured cat was food-driven, so I was able to clean his wound twice a day at feeding time—otherwise, I would never catch him!
Video: Fear-Free Cat Handling
How Long Does It Take for a Cat Abscess to Heal?
Most cat wounds take around 10–14 days to completely heal, but healing time may be faster in young or healthy cats—as quickly as 5–7 days.
As mentioned, some cat abscesses resolve on their own. Healing time is largely dependent on how deep or severe the wound is, the type of bacteria, the health of the cat (FeLV or FIV+), and the environment in which they can heal (clean and low-stress vs. outdoor and humid or cold).
When to Seek a Vet’s Assistance for a Cat Abscess
I have had great success using the above-mentioned method on my cats. There was only one time I had to take an outdoor cat to the vet—he was older, and his wound stayed infected. He stopped eating and just loafed around more so than normal—he would go into such a deep sleep that he wouldn’t even budge when I called his name.
It turned out the poor boy had a fever. The vet kept him for a few days to give him antibiotics and to keep an eye on his wound. That was 2 years ago, and that specific cat is still running around healthy and happy.
When Should I See a Vet?
Anytime you are in doubt, take the cat to a vet for a consultation. The vet will then either keep your cat and take care of the abscess (lance and drain) or send you home with a list of instructions. I am by no means a vet, vet tech, or vet assistant. This is information I have learned over the years and from my own vet. You should always seek veterinary attention if:
- The cat is more lethargic than normal.
- The cat appears to be in any pain or distress.
- The cat has lost its appetite or stopped eating.
- The cat is vomiting (cats can dehydrate easily).
- The abscess does not stop draining within 48 hours.
- The area of the wound is very large.
- The cat is immunocompromised.
- Cat Abscesses and Other Wounds
- Why Hydrogen Peroxide Is NOT For Cleaning Pet Wounds
Some pet owners have inadvertently slowed pet wound healing with their at-home care before bringing their pet to the vet. Peroxide is the culprit.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Sondra