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Cat abscesses; common causes and treatment

An abscess is a collection of purulent exudate (pus) contained within a cavity. Abscesses are a very common problem in cats. Abscesses often appear as lumps or masses which appear quite rapidly and are therefore noticed quite quickly by the observant owner. These masses are usually painful and may feel as if they are full of fluid if palpated; they can also feel very hard and care should be taken when palpating them as the cat may react to the pain by biting or scratching. Sometimes a foul smelling discharge may be noticed.

Abscesses in cats are seen very often by vets. Usually the owner will notice a painful swelling or mass which seems to appear quite rapidly. Sometimes there is a foul smelling discharge present which is often yellowish or blood tinged. This matter is commonly called pus and consists of dying cells and tissue together with serum.

The cat may show signs of being in pain and will often stop eating and become lethargic, it may also have a high temperature, but measuring this should be left to the vet!. If it is possible to gently palpate the mass it may feel either fluid like or very hard but if attempting to feel the mass remember that even the most placid friendly pet may react aggressively to pain. Common positions for abscesses in cats are the face, limbs and tail although other parts of the body may be affected, such as the anal sacs, prostate, mammary glands and eyes. Percutaneous (i.e. skin) abscesses are often caused by bites which occur when cats fight.

Common bacteria found in abscesses include Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Pseudomonas, E.coli and many others. Mycoplasma and mycoplasma-like organisms (L-forms) are sometimes found in cat abscesses. Foreign bodies (commonly cat teeth and claws!) may also be found within an abscess.

When presented with a cat with the signs indicating an abscess the vet may feel it necessary to perform some tests. These tests may include taking an aspirate; this involves carefully inserting a fine needle into the mass to try and withdraw some pus (fine needle aspirates can be used to withdraw cells from masses in order to determine a diagnosis in other sorts of masses as well). The vet may also feel it is necessary to take X-rays to find out if there is a foreign body such as a tooth inside the lesion or in the case of facial abscesses to check the condition of the cat's own teeth. Blood samples can also provide useful information. Other tests may be suggested by your vet. Do not be unduly concerned however, if the vet feels no diagnostic tests are initially required as these commonly seen masses are often diagnosed on presenting signs alone.

Treatment usually consists of ensuring adequate drainage for the pus inside the abscess and concurrent treatment with antibiotics. If the abscess has not already burst the vet will drain it by making an incision into the mass in such a position which allows the pus to drain. This may often be done under anaesthesia and sometimes the vet may insert a surgical drain to ensure successful drainage. If a drain is inserted it will look like a tube which usually appears at both ends of the wound and will have been sutured into position. If there is no drain the wound will be left open and this can appear slightly alarming to the owner but is necessary to allow drainage of pus. In some cases owners may find the appearance so alarming that they wonder why the vet does not suture the wound, I have even had cases where the owners try to insist that I do so. This is completely the wrong thing to do as it would prevent drainage of pus and would usually result in further wound breakdown and discomfort for the animal.

Antibiotic treatment will be given and may be all that is necessary if the abscess is already burst and draining freely when the vet sees it. The choice of antibiotic given will depend on the type of infection believed to be causing the problem and also upon the individual animal being treated. Often a general broad spectrum antibiotic is prescribed but your vet may wish to culture a sample of pus taken from the abscess in order to find out which drugs the organism responsible is most sensitive to. Commonly used antibiotics include amoxicillin/ clavulanic acid, and trimethoprim/sulphadiazine among others. In the case of abscesses where mycoplasma or mycoplasma like organisms are identified doxycycline may be used.

Usually the outcome for cat bite abscesses is good with the majority of cats responding well to treatment within a week to ten days. Prevention of recurrence is difficult especially in urban areas where the cat population density is high and territorial disputes between animals inevitable. However neutered animals are perhaps less likely to fight than entire animals especially toms. Cats could be kept indoors.

If the abscess is caused by a dental problem then dental treatment will be required. This usually involves the removal of the infected tooth or teeth. Again the prognosis is usually good following appropriate treatment. Abscesses may have other causes but these are less common than bites and dental problems; in these cases your vet will be able to provide further information.

As already stated your cat is at most risk of getting an abscess if it fights or has dental problems. However if your cat has FIV, FeLV, diabetes mellitus or is on medication which suppresses the immune system it is more at risk of developing an abscess than a healthy individual.

If you believe your cat may have an abscess please consult your veterinary surgeon.

See also; cat bites

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