By E G D McCarrison BVMS MRCVS

Cat Bite Abscesses and what to look for

I suspect that if you asked most cat owners what they thought was one of the most common problem that vets deal with in cats in general practice, most would answer fleas, worms or perhaps cat flu. In fact, the correct answer is cat bite abscesses.

So why is it that a simple cat bite can cause so many problems? There are in fact several reasons for this taking up so much time in general practice.

First of all, cats are natural hunters and not averse to grabbing other animals and biting them. They are also very territorial so it is not only prey animals that they will bite but also other cats that they perceive as trespassing on their turf. In multi-cat households there will often be occasions when even the best of friends fall-out.

If you examine your cat’s teeth you will see that they have four long teeth called canines, two on the top and two on the bottom. These are essential for hunting; being longer and thinner they are adapted to bite through skin and hold on. You will understand later why this is a major factor as to why cat bites cause so much trouble. The holes that are left in the skin are very small and close over very quickly leaving any bacteria in the wound trapped under the skin with no way to escape.

Despite even the most strenuous efforts by conscientious cat owners to keep their cat’s teeth clean, there will remain a very high bacterial population. If you carefully look in most cats mouths you will often see infected gums, called gingivitis, which looks like a red line around the edge of the gums and often with a build-up of calcium deposits on the teeth. Hidden among the teeth are several different bacteria. Some are called aerobic meaning they require oxygen and others called anaerobic meaning they can live and prosper in a low oxygen environment such as under skin and in fat. A group of bacteria called Pasteurella is particularly common and in studies this has been found in up to 90% of cat bite abscesses.

Another factor is that unlike a dog for example, cat skin is relatively loosely attached to the underlying structures. You will have noticed how much movement there is in the skin when you pick up your cat. This leaves what is called a potential dead space which allows fluid and infected cells to build up and expand very easily. This explains why abscesses in cats are much easier to spot due to the soft swellings that appear.

In summary we have cats who either willingly – through fighting or bullying – are likely to be bitten regularly by a mouth which is very infected, leaving very small and difficult to find wounds trapping bacteria in a loose, low oxygen environment which has potentially lots of room for infected matter to build up. Almost a perfect storm.

So, what can cat owners do to reduce the dangers of cat bites ?

Firstly, having your cats neutered reduces their urge to fight and therefore the likelihood of getting bitten. Keeping your cat in at night will also reduce the likelihood of them getting into fights and thus getting bitten. These measures however cannot stop all cat bites so an owner has to be aware when their cat may have been bitten because the sooner it is spotted the earlier measures can be taken to stop it becoming serious.

If your cat comes home and seems quieter than usual or just disappears into a corner and goes to sleep it is worth taking the time to have a very good look. The most likely area for bites tends to be around the base of the tail over the head and on the paws. Very often if the bite is near the base of the tail, you may see that the tail is being held a lot lower than usual.

Bite wounds on the head and especially on the ears will often cause an obvious swelling whereas bites on the feet may be swollen but more obviously your cat will be limping. If you suspect a bite look closely through the fur checking for small tuffs of fur possibly with a little clotted blood and a small hole in the skin. These can be very difficult to find and sometimes all you will find is an area of tenderness. This may need a very quick removal of your hands before you get scratched or bitten yourself.

If you are suspicious that there may be a bite it is best to take your cat to your vet for a check-up even if the cat appears to be well. If the vet agrees then he/she is likely to advise some preventive antibiotics. If you miss the early signs the next thing that you will find is your cat getting quieter and perhaps going off its food so any change in character or temperament should be taken note of. Left unattended to an abscess may well develop which will be a soft swelling of variable size which may or may not be painful.

If this does develop then your vet may have to lance the abscess, which will probably require a general anaesthetic. There will probably be a course of painkillers and antibiotics to follow which as you will know is not always easy to administer to your precious pet. Sometimes your vet may decide to take a swab from the wound to check which antibiotic is best but usually a good broad spectrum antibiotic will be supplied. Usually if an abscess has been lanced or even burst on its own then you will need to bathe the wound to allow it to drain and keep the area clean. Most cat bites will respond to treatment, but no one likes to see their cat in pain or distressed, so it is worth watching for the early signs of a cat bite. One last thought for cat owners is that abscesses are not the only result from bites wounds. Cats can contract other diseases such as FeLV and FIV from bites so it is worth reducing the chances of cat getting bitten where ever possible.

"Cats are creatures that express a multitude of moods and attitudes"

Karen Brademeyer