Fight Wound Infections in Cats

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

Cats sometimes fight with one another. Fights may occur outside the home, with other owned or stray cats, or inside the home if there is a serious conflict between two or more resident cats. Fight wounds (including those from other animals) frequently result in infections that can become very serious if left untreated. Fight wounds are more common in male cats than in females, especially intact (unneutered) males.

How serious are fight wound infections?

A cat’s sharp canine teeth can easily puncture the skin, leaving small, but deep, wounds in the skin. These punctures rapidly seal over, trapping bacteria from the biting cat's mouth under the skin of the victim, where they can readily multiply. The infection may go unnoticed for several days until swelling and pain at the puncture site develop. At this point, the cat will often develop a fever. If the skin surrounding the wound is loose, a pocket of pus will develop, forming an abscess. In areas where the skin is not loose, such as the lower leg or the tail, the infection spreads through the tissues and causes cellulitis, an area of swelling and infection that does not form an actual pocket of pus.

In rare cases, a cat bite will result in septic arthritis (infection of a joint space), osteomyelitis (infection of the bone), or pyothorax (the chest cavity fills with pus).

"...punctures rapidly seal over, trapping bacteria from the biting cat's mouth under the skin..."

How will I know that my cat has a fight wound if I can't find any bite marks?

Puncture wounds heal very quickly so there is often nothing to see or feel, especially in the first few days after the bite. It may be possible to feel heat and swelling in the area of the bite. The most common sites of bites are on the head, forelimbs, or at the base of the tail. If the leg was bitten, it is usually painful, and your cat may limp. Some cats may become lethargic and have a fever. Many cats will excessively groom the injured area.

What should I do if I know my cat was bitten?

If you know that your cat has been in a fight, notify your veterinarian immediately. Antibiotics given within 24 hours will often stop the spread of infection and may prevent the development of an abscess. If several days have passed since the fight, an abscess will usually form, requiring more involved medical treatment.

How will my veterinarian treat my cat's fight wound?

If an abscess is present, your veterinarian will drain and flush the injured site. This may be done by removing the scabs over the original bite wounds or, more commonly, by lancing the skin over the abscess. It may be necessary to sedate or anesthetize your cat for this. If cellulitis is present, drainage is not possible.

Antibiotics, such as ampicillin (Ampi-Tab®), amoxicillin-clavulanate (Clavamox®), cefazolin (Ancef®, Kefzol®), or cefovecin (Convenia®), will be given to treat the bacterial infection. If your veterinarian prescribes antibiotic tablets for you to give to your cat, it is very important that you give all the tablets as directed. Pain medications may also be prescribed.

With large abscesses, your veterinarian may recommend a technique called debridement, where all affected tissues are removed, including any inflamed tissues that have walled off the abscess from the rest of the body. The resulting clean wound will be closed with sutures. In some situations, your veterinarian may also place a surgical drain in the wound to allow any discharges to escape.

How should I care for the wound after my veterinarian has treated it?

If your veterinarian has drained the abscess, the wound may be deliberately left open to allow for drainage. It is advisable to clean the wound twice a day for two to three days to keep it open, using cotton balls, gauze, or a washcloth and warm water. If a skin cleanser or surgical soap is necessary, your veterinarian will prescribe it. Only use products that are recommended by your veterinarian. NEVER use disinfectants containing phenols, as these are toxic to cats. Never use hydrogen peroxide for cleaning a drained abscess, since this will delay healing and can worsen the problem.

"Never use hydrogen peroxide for cleaning a drained abscess, since this will delay healing and can worsen the problem."

If your veterinarian has placed a drain, you will need to clean the drainage holes twice per day for two to five days, or until the drain is removed. Once the tissues have completely healed, which usually takes about two weeks, any remaining sutures will be removed.

What if the wound is not healing properly?

With appropriate treatment, most abscesses should heal within five to seven days. The swelling associated with cellulitis may take longer. If you believe the wound is not healing normally, ask your veterinarian to re-examine it.

If your cat's wound is left untreated, there is a danger that the abscess will burst and only partially drain before healing begins. This can leave small pockets of pus behind, which will cause recurrence. Similar consequences may follow if courses of antibiotics are not completed, or adequate drainage is not maintained.

"Certain viruses, such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV), suppress the immune system and may complicate your cat's recovery from infection."

If the infected wound does not heal within a few days of treatment, your veterinarian may recommend testing to see if there is an underlying cause. Certain viruses, such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV), suppress the immune system and may complicate your cat's recovery from infection. Blood tests can be performed to diagnose these viral infections.

A persistent draining wound may indicate that foreign material (e.g., a broken tooth, claw, or soil) is present in the wound and may require surgical exploration. Alternatively, it may indicate the presence of an unusual infectious agent, in which case biopsies for culture and sensitivity or other tests may be needed.

Why does my cat keep getting abscesses in the same place?

This may reflect inadequate treatment, as mentioned above, where the abscess never completely resolves. Alternatively, it may reflect your cat's typical position in fights; a cat that runs away will tend to be bitten on the tail base, whereas the aggressor will tend to be bitten on the head or forelimbs.

Are there any other risks associated with fight wounds from cats?

Bite wounds are the main route of transmission of some important feline infections, most notably, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV). Blood tests should be performed after any bite wounds to diagnose these infections. (See handouts "Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)" and "Feline Leukemia Disease Complex" for more information.)

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