Abscesses in Cats

Abscesses in Cats

Animals Affected



An abscess is an area of infection and pus accumulation in the body.   In cats, two types of abscess are common.  Dental abscesses occur when unchecked periodontal disease leads to severe infection of the teeth.  Fight abscesses occur when the skin and its underlying tissues are injured and become infected as a result of fighting with other cats. This article discusses fight abscesses.

When one cat bites another during a fight, the most common result is a deep puncture wound.  All such wounds are contaminated with bacteria because bacteria are present on the teeth of all animals.  In most cases, the surface of the puncture wound heals rapidly, trapping bacteria underneath the skin.  The bacteria proliferate, and pus accumulates in the area as the body tries to fight the infection.  If the body is unable to control the infection, an abscess develops.

Abscesses are painful and may cause the cat to feel sick.  Abscesses usually are treated by draining the pus and administering antibiotics to the cat.  Cats that develop abscesses are at risk of infection with FIV, or feline AIDS.


  • Fully developed abscesses lead to pronounced swelling underneath the skin at the site of infection.
  • The area may be painful.  Cats may resent handling of the area.  Limping may occur if the abscess is located on a leg or foot.
  • Hair may be absent in the area of swelling.  A scab or small puncture wound may be noted on the skin.
  • Blood or pus may drain from the affected area.
  • A strong, unpleasant odor may emanate from the abscess.
  • Cats with abscesses may display signs of fever, including lethargy and lack of appetite.

Risk Factors and Prevention

  • Access to outdoor areas is the leading risk factor for abscesses in cats.   Cats that are kept indoors almost never engage in fighting that is severe enough to lead to abscesses.  Keeping cats indoors is the most effective way to prevent abscesses.
  • Male cats fight more often than female cats.  They are therefore more likely to develop abscesses.
  • Cats that have not been neutered suffer high rates of abscesses.
  • Young cats (less than seven years old) more frequently fight and develop abscesses than older cats.
  • Cats with a prior history of abscesses are likely to develop future abscesses due to a demonstrated tendency to fight.


  • Abscesses are painful and often cause cats to feel ill.
  • Infections from abscesses can spread to nearby structures such as joints and ears.
  • Cats that develop abscesses from fighting are at risk of infection with FIV.
  • Blood and pus that drain from abscesses can contaminate the house and damage furniture and carpet.


Most fully developed abscesses can be identified by veterinarians during a physical examination.   In some cases, bacterial culture or microscopic evaluation of fluid from the area is necessary.

Abscesses that are not fully developed can be difficult to identify.  More extensive diagnostic testing or multiple physical examinations may be required to make a diagnosis in these cases.


For healing to occur, pus should be drained from the abscess and the area should be thoroughly cleansed.  General anesthesia may be necessary for this step.

In many cases, a piece of tubing or fabric (called a drain) is sutured into the area after the pus is drained.  The drain prevents the skin from healing, and allows pus to pass through the opening in the skin.  Veterinarians remove most drains three to five days after they are placed.

Oral antibiotics such as penicillins, cephalosporins, or clindamycin are prescribed for most abscesses.

Pain killers are prescribed in many cases.

Some cats wear Elizabethan collars (cone collars) to prevent them from injuring themselves while they heal.


Most abscesses heal completely within seven – 14 days after they are drained. Reassessment by a veterinarian is indicated if any swelling or drainage persists after treatment is complete.

Cats that fight are at risk of infection with FIV, or feline AIDS.  Owners of cats that have a history of abscesses should test their pets for the disease.

Unless it is kept inside, any cat that has been treated for an abscess is at high risk for developing more abscesses in the future.


Conventional wisdom among veterinarians holds that cats develop abscesses on their face, neck, and forelimbs when they stand their ground during fights.  Cats that attempt to run away or escape from fights are more likely to be bitten and develop abscesses on their hind ends.

Copyright © Eric Barchas, DVM All rights reserved.
The contents of this page are provided for general informational purposes only. Under no circumstances should this page be substituted for professional consultation with a veterinarian.