What to Do When Your Cat Is Sick: SKIN (INTEGUMENTARY SYSTEM)

The Classic Comprehensive Handbook of Cat Care

What to Do When Your Cat Is Sick: SKIN (INTEGUMENTARY SYSTEM)


In addition to the information in this section, other causes of skin disease will be found in the sections on external parasites and nutrition.


Wounds and their frequent sequelae, abscesses, are the most common skin problems seen in cats who are allowed outdoors. Whether or not your cat needs to see a veterinarian for wound care depends a lot on the kind of wound it is. Short, clean lacerations (cuts) or cuts that do not completely penetrate the skin and most abrasions (scrapes) usually need only to be washed thoroughly with mild soap and rinsed with large volumes of warm, clean water. After thorough washing these injuries should be examined daily for signs of infection. Larger cuts (about one-half-inch long or longer) and punctures usually need veterinary attention.


Wound healing is essentially the same process whether it occurs by primary or secondary intention. The wound fills with a clot. The wound edges contract, reducing the wound in size. White blood cells called macrophages enter the wound and remove dead tissue and foreign material. Blood vessels and connective tissue cells enter the wound, followed by nerve fibers and lymphatic cells. At the same time this is happening, skin cells move in to close the surface opening, and finally the wound is healed. Wounds that are allowed to heal without apposing (bringing together) their edges heal by secondary intention. Healing by primary intention is more rapid. Your veterinarian tries to achieve primary intention healing by suturing larger wounds closed. Suturing clean wounds closed also helps prevent them from becoming infected while they are healing. Wounds, however, which are likely to become infected cannot be sutured closed or must be sutured only with special care. Puncture wounds —most commonly bite wounds or claw wounds—are among the most frequently seen wounds on cats that fall into this category.


Bite wounds and claw wounds require special attention not only because they are likely to become infected (which interferes with healing), but also because if the body’s defenses (white blood cells and lymph nodes) are unable to overcome the bacteria, infection may spread from the original wound to the bloodstream. This may result in a septicemia (bacterial toxins in the blood) or a bacteremia (actual bacteria in the blood) and can sometimes eventually lead to death. Although puncture wounds are difficult to wash, you should make an attempt to clean them thoroughly whenever you notice any on your cat. Flushing a mild disinfectant into the wound under light pressure (with a eyedropper, turkey baster, or syringe) is one of the best home remedies because this action tends to wash debris out of the wound. Disinfectants that are used in veterinary hospitals and that you can buy there or in drugstores include 0.001% to 1% povidone- iodine (the more dilute solutions are actually more potent disinfectants and less damaging to healthy tissue), 0.55% chlorhexidine, and 0.125% to 0.5% sodium hypochlorite (one fourth to full strength Dakin’s solution), which can be made by diluting household bleach 1:10 to 1:40 with water.
Flushing with hydrogen peroxide, once thought to be an effective wound treatment, has fallen into disfavor due to its weak antibacterial properties.

Its foaming action is impressive but is best reserved for flushing debris or blood clots from a wound. If used, the concentration of hydrogen peroxide should never be more than 3%. Do not instill oil-based antibiotic wound ointments or those containing the local anesthetic benzocaine into the wound cavity as oily products may interfere with healing. Any benzocaine absorbed through the skin is toxic to red blood cells. If possible, antibiotics should be administered by a veterinarian from the start of treatment (within twenty-four hours of the bite) since bite wounds are so prone to infection.

The biting cat (or other animal) should be investigated regarding the status of its rabies immunization.


An abscess is a localized collection of pus in a cavity caused by the death and destruction of body tissues. Abscesses are the most common type of infection occurring in improperly treated bite or claw wounds. They usually cause swelling under the skin at the wound site and sometimes signs of pain, but often go unnoticed until they begin to drain sticky white,
yellow to yellow-green, or blood-tinged pus. Abscesses are frequently found on the head (cheeks, ears), legs and feet, and on the tail (near its base). They occur much less frequently in the tissues behind the eye (retrobulbar abscess) causing swelling, protrusion of the eye, and signs of pain particularly when attempts are made to open the mouth. Veterinarians treat abscesses by opening them surgically under anesthesia and by removing all visibly dead and infected tissue (débridement). Antibiotics are administered, and you are usually instructed to clean the wound daily at home. You can often tell when an abscess that is not draining is formed and ready to open by feeling it with your finger. If you can feel a soft spot or if the swelling feels fluid filled under the skin, it is ready to lance.

Sometimes your veterinarian will advise you to put warm packs on an inflamed and infected area that is not yet abscessed. This helps localize the infection so effective drainage can be provided. By transiently increasing the blood supply to the area, hot packs may help antibiotics get into the infection, preventing abscessation in some instances. You may want to try this without a veterinarian’s advice on an infected, diffuse swelling (cellulitis) that has not yet abscessed if your cat does not have a fever and seems fairly normal except for the signs of inflammation.

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If your cat has a well-localized abscess that has burst or is covered by a scab that can be removed and has no fever, you may be able to get the abscess to heal with home treatment alone. You must pull off the scab if the abscess is not yet draining, then determine how extensive the abscess is.

Any abscess in which you can’t reach to the full extent of the pocket probably won’t heal but will spread or recur and need a veterinarian’s attention. Determine the extent of the pocket by wrapping your gloved finger in a sterile gauze pad and probing the wound thoroughly. Be gentle, but be sure to clean out all pus and loose tissue and to probe to the wound’s farthest reaches. A small abscess can be cleaned and probed with a cotton-tipped swab. Clean the abscess thoroughly with a disinfectant once or twice a day. If the opening of the wound is large enough, you can pour the disinfectant solution directly into it. A syringe (bulb or hypodermic type) or eye dropper can be used to flush the solution into smaller wounds. The disinfectant can be applied to a gauze pad which is used to wipe the wound or to a cotton-tipped swab which can be inserted into very small wounds.

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Some cats find these procedures uncomfortable, so be alert to avoid injury to yourself if the cat bites or scratches to show his or her displeasure. Clean the wound until visible tissue is free of debris and/or until the solution runs clear. Repeat the cleaning once or twice a day until debris no longer accumulates in the wound.


If your cat has a fever or any other signs of illness accompanying an abscess or wound, do not attempt home treatment without the help of a veterinarian. Fever and/or other general signs of illness indicate that the problem is a more serious infection that the body’s defenses have not been able to localize.

Improperly treated wounds can be responsible for serious and expensive complications—among them bone infections, recurrent abscesses, and bacterial infections of internal organs such as liver, heart, and lungs.


Another type of abscess in cats is the tooth root abscess caused by an infected tooth, usually found in a neglected mouth. This kind of infection may cause swelling on the face; the swelling may come and go. Treatment usually requires that the infected tooth be removed to prevent recurrent abscessation. So see your veterinarian if you suspect this problem.

Foreign bodies not removed from a wound can also cause a recurring abscess. Plant awns (wild barley “foxtails”) often cause this type of abscess between the toes or in the genital area of dogs. They are much less common in cats, but these abscesses must be probed by an expert until the foreign object is found and removed or they will not heal. If you are lucky at home, a foreign body abscess will open and, by expressing (squeezing out) the contents, you will be able to pop out the foreign body. Infected anal glands frequently abscess.


Tetanus is mentioned here with wounds because this disease is usually contracted following a wound that allows entry of the bacteria that cause it. Cats are much more resistant to infection with Clostridium tetani, the bacterium that causes tetanus, than humans are. In fact, tetanus infection in cats is rare, so veterinarians don’t normally vaccinate cats against it. The tetanus-causing organism is commonly found in manure and manure-contaminated soil. Tetanus antitoxin and/or penicillin (which kills the tetanus bacteria) can be given by a veterinarian when a cat gets a manure-contaminated wound or acquires a wound in filthy surroundings.

Signs of tetanus include progressive stiffness and hyperactivity, difficulty opening the mouth and swallowing, and rigid extension of all limbs and the tail. Cats with tetanus need a veterinarian’s care.