Most infected wounds and abscesses in cats are caused by bites sustained during cat fights. They are more common in male cats than females and most common in undesexed males.
WHY DO CATS FIGHT?
Cats are very territorial and will fight with other cats to protect their territory. Desexed male cats defend a small area around their home, but undesexed males will try to continually expand their territory.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER A CAT HAS BEEN BITTEN?
When a cat bites, it leaves small punctures in the skin which rapidly seal over trapping bacteria from the cat’s mouth under the skin of the victim. Often, no sign of the bit can be seen initially. As bacteria under the skin multiply, and tissues surrounding the bite wounds become infected, pain and swelling occurs. After a few days, an abscess (a pocket of pus) may develop. With severe abscesses, the skin is lifted off the underlying tissues, causing loss of blood supply and necrosis (death) of areas of skin. These areas of skin come off, leaving large open wounds. Sometimes an abscess will rupture, but then reform, if there is not good drainage.
Occasionally, the bite penetrates a joint or bony area, causing septic arthritis (infected joint) or osteomyelitis (bone infection).
Pain is the most obvious sign that a cat has an abscess developing. Often cats will not allow their owners to touch them at the bite site. The area may be swollen. The cat may become listless, have a fever and become inappetant.
HOW ARE BITE WOUNDS AND ABSCESSES TREATED?
If a bite wound is treated early, before it develops into an abscess, antibiotics alone will often be all that is required. Once an abscess forms, antibiotics will not be able to penetrate the pus, and surgical draining of the abscess under general anaesthesia will be required. Often quite a large hole will be left open to allow drainage, or a drain may be left in the abscess for 4-5 days. It may be necessary to clean the area for a few days after the surgery – salty water should be used for this, not disinfectants. Antibiotics will also be necessary. Generally abscesses will heal quickly after treatment, although if large areas of skin have been lost, it may take longer.
FELINE IMMUNODEFICIENCY VIRUS (FIV)
Bite wounds are the main routes of transmission of Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, the “Feline Aids Virus” (this is not transmissible to humans). If your cat is known to have had a fight, a blood test for FIV is recommended 3 to 6 months later.
HOW CAN FIGHT WOUNDS AND ABSCESSES BE PREVENTED?
The main ways of preventing cat fights are by desexing cats and keeping cats confined, especially at night, when most fights occur. If you know that your cat has been in a fight, it is best to have it seen by the veterinarian as soon as possible, as early treatment will prevent abscess formation.