External Wounds - Abscesses, Laceration, Scratches, Punctures, Burns, Scalds
External problems in your cat can range from an ingrown nail to an infected bite wound from another cat. Regardless of the problem's severity, you will want to address it quickly and properly.
If you find a local swelling of any size on your cat, it could be an abscess but it could also be a tumor, cyst, insect bite, hematoma, fracture, or soft tissue trauma (sprain, pocket of fluid). To distinguish these maladies from an abscess, you should know that:
- An abscess will usually be warm or even hot to the touch.
- Touching the swelling may be painful to the cat.
- Your cat may have an elevated temperature (103ºF or higher) or he may have a normal temperature.
- Your cat may withdraw socially and stop eating or he may behave normally in every way.
- Breaks in the skin (bite, scratch, puncture, insect stinger, etc.) near or at the swelling site usually indicate the route of bacterial invasion.
- A maturing abscess that is close to rupturing will have a softer spot, or several areas of uneven consistency, where surface rupture is likely.
- Recent conflict with another animal increases the likelihood that the swelling is an abscess even if an injury is unnoticeable at first.
An abscess can occur anywhere on the body. Sometimes, the source of the infection is not external (from an injury) but internal (from inside the body). The most common example is from a dental problem - a tooth root abscess of the upper row of teeth, which produces a characteristic abscess on the cheek below the eye. The treatment for a tooth root abscess includes draining the abscess, appropriate antibiotics, and dental extraction by your vet.
The anal glands or sacs, scent-marking organs located on either side of a cat's anus, can occasionally become impacted and infected. Infected anal glands, anal sacculitis, can rupture at or near the anus and are painful and sometimes complicated to heal. Anal glands should be examined by your vet if your cat is chewing at his backside, scooting his rump along the ground, biting at his tail or seems to be uncomfortable when you approach his tail. Disinfections, antibiotics, and (rarely) surgical excision of the infected sacs may be included in your cat's treatment.
NOTE: If your cat has a fever, do not give him any medication that may mask the fever. The fever response is an adaptive defense mechanism that benefits your cat, and in most cases, you should not interfere. The problem is not the fever - the problem is an infection.
If your cat has a swelling on his body surface that might be an abscess, you should schedule a veterinary appointment within 24 hours. In the interium, an ice pack placed at the site may provide some relief. Take the cat's rectal temperature to make sure that it is normal. If the temperature is elevated, your vet will want to see your cat the same day to expedite treatment.
Do not feed your cat the day of your vet visit in case the vet requires surgical drainage on the same day. Any wound infested with maggots (fly larva) should receive immediate attention. These immature insects burrow deep into the cat's skin and create complicated wounds and much misery. Please do not delay veterinary attention.
If the abscess has already begun to drain pus:
1. Do NOT touch it with your bare hands. Put on latex exam gloves, dishwashing gloves, or any type of clean glove that you can wash later.
2. If your cat tolerates it and if you have the stomach for it, gently wipe the pus away with a paper towel, and press gently on the abscess to encourage further drainage from the open wound.
3. Pour lukewarm water into the wound to flush out additional infected material and debris.
4. Additional flushing with hydrogen peroxide may be helpful once most of the pus is out of the abscess cavity.
5. Cover with a clean dressing and secure with a bandage.
6. Call your vet for an appointment the same day.
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A laceration is a cut. Lacerations can be minor and superficial or they can be deep and severe. Superficial cuts can bleed profusely and long gaping wounds can produce minimal bleeding.
NOTE: If you do not know how your cat was originally wounded, or if it was due to contact with another animal of any kind, there is a significant risk of contact with rabies. Avoid direct contact with any open wound and immediately seek veterinary help. Even though your cat may have had his rabies shot recently, your veterinarian may administer a rabies vaccination booster and will advise you on any quarantine period that is required by law in your area. Keep all your cat's vaccinations current throughout his lifetime.
If the cut is superficial and relatively small - less than 1 inch long - cover the wound with a clean or sterile gauze or paper towel and apply direct manual pressure for at least five minutes to stop the bleeding. Ideally, place an ice pack over the dressing and apply direct manual pressure. If the bleeding continues when you release pressure, resume pressure for an additional 5 - 10 minutes before releasing. Sprinkle about 1 teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate (i.e., Arm&Hammer baking soda) onto the wound and continue to apply direct pressure with ice. If a small cut continues bleeding for more than 15 minutes, have the cat seen by your veterinarian immediately.
If bleeding has stopped or was never significant, pour soapy lukewarm water over the wound and follow with clear lukewarm water to flush away any superficial debris. Pat or blot dry - DO NOT rub the surface. Doing so may disturb blood clots and bleeding could resume.
Apply a topical antibiotic ointment and apply a bandage or light dressing. Keep the bandage clean and dry. Change the bandage and dressing daily. If the wound seems to be clean and dry, simply reapply the ointment. If you see any sign of redness surrounding the cut, any pus, or if the wound remains open after several days, flush with hydrogen peroxide and pat dry before reapplying the ointment and dressing. If there is no improvement after three to five days, if the wound causes pain, or if a fever develops, call for a veterinary appointment as soon as possible for additional treatment.
If the wound is greater than 1 inch long and cuts deeply into skin layers or deeper still into muscular layers, cover the wound with a clean or sterile gauze, paper towel, or hand towel and apply direct pressure to stop the bleeding. Use an ice pack to complement the effects of manual pressure.
Do not release pressure for a full 10 minutes. Gently pour soapy lukewarm water over the wound and follow with clear lukewarm water to flush away any superficial debris - DO NOT rub the surface; pat or blot it dry. Apply a bandage or light dressing, and call your vet advising that you're on your way with an emergency laceration.
If a laceration bleeds profusely around your hands during manual pressure and shows no sign of slowing down after 5 minutes, DO NOT release pressure. NOTE: Bleeding from the ears, feet or tail is often messy and though these injuries require professional care, they are not fatal; uncontrolled bleeding elsewhere deserves immediate veterinary attention. Transport the cat to the nearest clinic immediately.
If the wound is on the tail or limb, try applying direct manual pressure to the major supply vessels closer to the body; elevate the tail or limb if possible:
Tail - press your fingers along the midline groove that runs the length of the underside of the tail to compress the major supply vessels.
Front leg - wrap your hand around the leg and squeeze tightly about halfway to the shoulder or just above the elbow, depending on where the cut is located and which seems to help more.
Rear leg - wrap your hand around the lower leg and squeeze tightly if the injury is below this level. For leg injuries above the knee, major supply vessels are located on the inside of the thigh about one third of the way between the front and back of the leg. Apply pressure to the inside of the leg with flattened fingers.
If the wound is on a tail or limb and direct manual pressure to the major vessels fails, apply a tourniquet (see below) above the laceration site; gradually tighten the tourniquet until bleeding stops or at least slows down. Tourniquets are a last resort and can cause permanent injury if left on too long, but in an emergency, the risk is worthwhile. Transport your cat immediately to the nearest clinic. Remain calm and keep your cat calm to minimize further blood loss.
If a laceration of any size starts to bleed again despite your efforts, resume direct pressure with any clean dressing or towel and proceed directly to the nearest clinic.
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A tourniquet is any device that compresses a blood vessel to stop the bleeding or a tail or limb. Only as a last resort, apply a tourniquet for uncontrolled bleeding prior to and/or during transport to the hospital. They should be used only when direct manual pressure and ice fail.
If the wound is relatively small, place the tourniquet directly over a thick dressing. If the wound is larger, if there is no dressing, or if bleeding continues despite a tourniquet applied directly over the injured site, try placing the tourniquet 2 or 3 inches closer to the body. NOTE: In this position and if the tourniquet stops the flow of blood, a light dressing can be placed over the wound, but do not delay unnecessarily before seeking emergency treatment.
The simplest type of tourniquet can be made with bandaging material or a strip of cloth. Place a thick dressing of gauze squares, cloth, or feminine sanitary pad over the wound. Tie the tourniquet around the bleeding wound, or slightly above it if necessary, and tighten the knot until bleeding slows or stops completely.
Tourniquets are not comfortable for the conscious cat. This is no time to worry about hurting him. The decision to apply a tourniquet was due to uncontrolled hemorrhage. Transport immediately.
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Scratches and Punctures
A scratch (abrasion) can be caused by conflicts with other animals and abrasive or jagged surfaces, such as rocks or certain plants. Superficial scratches generally require only light disinfections of the skin. For deep scratches, it is advisable to clip the hair to promote healing. Keep the wound clean and dry. Apply an antibiotic ointment 2 - 3 times per day for at least 7 days. It is usually not recommended to cover the wound with a dressing. Always watch for signs of infection - redness, swelling, local heat, fever, pain, or pus.
A puncture wound is any perforating injury that is deeper than it is wide. It may be linear or circular. They can be the result of being bitten. A bite wound often has at least two puncture wounds that correspond to the upper canine teeth of the aggressor, but there may be only one puncture wound caused by a bite if only one tooth made contact.
Punctures may also be due to other causes, such as a knife or gunshot. If there is an exit wound, it may be much larger and have irregular borders. Punctures can also result from a fall on a perforating object, such as a pointed stick, shard of broken glass, or metal fragment. A puncture wound may have much bleeding or very little depending on the location of the injury, the tissues that were damaged, and the cause of injury. In the event of a puncture wound, you should:
- Evaluate the whole cat; is he agitated or unusually calm? Is he conscious or unresponsive? Can you locate a heartbeat? Is the cat breathing?
- Look for signs of shock such as pale or pasty gums and a rapid pulse. Perform CPR as necessary; keep your cat warm, do not focus on disinfecting the wound or taking his temperature.
- If there is profuse bleeding, apply direct pressure to the site or a pressure bandage and transport your cat to the nearest vet.
- If the wound penetrates the chest, a lung may have been punctured (hold your hand over the injury to feel for the passage of air that coincides with exhaling), major vessels may have severed, or the heart itself may have been lacerated. If necessary, press a clean or sterile dressing directly into the open wound to fill the space. Transport to the vet immediately.
- If the perforating object has remained embedded in your cat, do not remove the object! The object itself may be controlling bleeding in deeper tissues by pressure against blood vessels. By withdrawing the object you may cause additional damage and pain to your cat. Keep your cat warm and calm; transport him immediately to the vet.
Whenever your cat is wounded, get as much information as possible about the circumstances surrounding the injury. Details could be important to help your vet provide the appropriate treatments (i.e., a bite from another animal may require a rabies booster or a rusty nail may require a tentanus antitoxin).
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Burns and Scalds
Do not leave your cat, especially your kitten, unattended in a room with burning candles, lamps or any open flame, indoors or out. Make sure that the screen to your fireplace is stable and that the door to your wood burning stove is secure. Train your cat at a young age to stay off the stove and kitchen counters.
Keep pot handles facing inward on the stovetop or counter top and do not leave hot food items unguarded, especially on barbecues or grills, if your cat is prone to raiding for food. If you bathe your cat at home, use lukewarm water - test the water with your elbow before immersing him. Keep electrical cords covered so that they cannot be chewed. If cords cannot be rendered inaccessible, keep your cat out of that room.
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