Skin Abscesses in Cats

Key takeaways

An abscess in cats is a localized collection of pus inside a cavity; abscesses can occur anywhere in the body, but this article focuses on subcutaneous abscesses. Punctures in the skin seal over quickly, trapping bacteria, which then multiplies

  • Symptoms include localized pain, swelling, lack of appetite, lethargy, and over-grooming
  • A ruptured subcutaneous abscess leaves an open, draining hole in the skin
  • The most common cause of abscesses in cats is bite wounds
  • Often the abscess site is obvious on physical exam but blood work, biopsy, and bacterial cultures may be recommended
  • Treatment involves draining and cleaning the abscess, pain medication, and antibiotics
  • Old/large abscesses may require surgery
  • Prognosis depends on location, bacteria involved, and the extent of infection
  • Most heal within 1-2 weeks and have an excellent prognosis
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A closer look: Skin Abscesses in Cats

Any abscess requires timely veterinary care.

Most subcutaneous abscesses are not life-threatening, but in some cases abscesses may spread to the bloodstream or internal organs, making them emergencies. Punctures heal over very quickly, so pet parents may not see any signs until the abscess is well-established. The most common locations for subcutaneous abscesses in cats are the head and face, legs, and the base of the tail.

Risk factors

Symptoms may vary depending on the extent and location of the abscess. In rare cases, an abscess may involve a joint space and result in septic arthritis. Abscesses that involve bone may lead to osteomyelitis (infection of the bone). When an abscess extends into the space around the heart and lungs, pyothorax is the result with the chest cavity filling with pus. Symptoms for those types of abscesses include limping and breathing difficulties.

Potentially lethal infectious diseases like rabies, feline immunodeficiency virus, and feline leukemia may be transmitted during bites, so monitoring or testing for these illnesses may be part of the treatment plan for bite wound abscesses

Possible causes

The most common cause of abscesses in cats is bite wounds from territorial fighting. This occurs more often in outdoor cats but can occur between cats in a household as well. Other causes can include injury by other means and underlying conditions which can lead to damage to the body. The types of bacteria found in subcutaneous abscesses can include; Staphylococcus, Escherichia coli, certain Streptococcus species, Pseudomonas, Mycoplasma, Pasteurella multocida, Corynebacterium, Actinomyces, Nocardia, and Bartonella, as well as some bacteria that can only live and grow in the absence of oxygen including Bacteroides, Clostridium, and Fusobacterium.

Main symptoms

Testing and diagnosis

The first step diagnosis of a possible abscess is a full physical exam. The abscess(es) may be easily identified or not, depending on the location. Blood work and bacterial culturing may be recommended. If the abscess started as a bite wound, testing for feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus ≥ 60 days post-bite may be indicated as these viruses are spread primarily through bites.

Steps to Recovery

Typical treatment is to lance the skin over the pus-filled pocket, drain the discharge, and flush the pocket. Sedation is typically required. The site is usually left open to drain. In cases of older or larger abscesses, surgery may be necessary to clean the area and remove damaged tissue, in which case the wound may be sutured and an indwelling rubber drain may be placed. Pain medications are important, as abscesses are generally quite painful. A two-week course of antibiotics is typically sufficient to heal most abscesses. If the abscess is not healing as expected with this treatment, bacterial culturing can aid in selection of the most appropriate antibiotic. Home care like drain maintenance, warm compresses, and generally keeping the area clean may be necessary.

Note: lancing and drainage should only be performed by a veterinarian. It is not safe to attempt to lance an abscess at home.

Prognosis is dependent on the part of the body affected, the bacteria involved, and the extent of the infection, however, most abscesses are expected to heal within 1-2 weeks with treatment, and carry an excellent prognosis. Occasionally abscesses can recur in the same or even a distant site.


As most abscess in cats are caused by bite wounds, preventing cats from fighting is the best prevention. This may be achieved by keeping cats indoors and/or away from any rival cats and by neutering males, who are much more likely to engage in physical fighting when intact. Abscesses themselves are not contagious, but viruses spread through bites (FIV, FeLV) are contagious between cats. Vaccination against feline leukemia may be helpful. Keeping cats vaccinated against rabies is also advised, as that virus can also be spread through bites and is an extreme danger to human health.

Are Skin Abscesses in Cats common?

Abscesses are very common in cats, especially outdoor cats and intact male cats.

Typical Treatment

  • Lance, drain, and clean abscess site
  • Pain medication
  • Antibiotics
  • Surgical debridement, with or without drain placement
  • Follow-up monitoring and testing for infectious diseases commonly transmitted via bite wounds

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