Fight wounds are common in cats, especially uncastrated male cats. Like many animals, cats are territorial. They "stake out" a territory and may fight other cats who venture into their territory. The wounds that result often become infected and need veterinary care.
What do fight wounds look like?
It is fairly common for the cat to show no signs of a fight wound for some days after a fight. This is because the holes in the skin made by a cat's teeth or claws are small puncture wounds. (In contrast, a dog bite often results in torn skin and a gaping wound.) These puncture wounds can be deep, but they seal over within hours. Even in short-haired cats, the wounds can be difficult to find until they become infected.
The most common signs of infection are swelling and pain at the wound site. Fight wounds that are left untreated often result in an abscess or cellulitis. An abscess is a pocket of pus beneath the skin or within the tissues. Pus is a mixture of bacteria, fluid, and white blood cells from the body's defense system. When pus builds up and has no way of escaping through the skin, it causes a painful swelling that continues to enlarge.
If the abscess is not treated, it may break out through the skin, resulting in a wound that drains pus onto the cat's fur. The pus from these wounds often has a bad odor. Cat fight abscesses are most common on the side of the face and neck and on the rump and thigh. In other words, they are most often found on the fighting and retreating ends of the cat.
Cellulitis is widespread infection of the tissues beneath the skin. But while bacteria and white blood cells are present, no pockets of pus form. The most common sites for cellulitis are the foot, leg, and tail. These are areas with little soft tissue between the skin and the bone, and little loose skin under which pus can build up. Cellulitis causes swelling of the affected area, but it may not be as noticeable as an abscess.
Certain bacteria in the cat's mouth and on its claws thrive in the moist, low-oxygen environment of a puncture wound. These bacteria release toxins that may be absorbed into the cat's system. So, cats with infected fight wounds may also have a fever and seem unwell (not eating, less active than normal, etc.).
How is a fight wound diagnosed?
Infected fight wounds usually are easy to recognize once there is an abscess or cellulitis. But it is not necessary to wait until this point to diagnose a fight wound. If you know your cat has been in a fight, a careful search of the cat's skin often reveals a puncture wound at one of the typical sites.
How are fight wounds treated?
Treatment depends on how long it has been since the fight and what form the infection takes.
Fresh fight wounds
If you know your cat has fresh fight wounds, your veterinarian may prescribe a course of antibiotics to prevent infection of the wounds and abscess formation.
Cat bite abscesses must be drained either through the original puncture hole or through a small incision the veterinarian makes into the abscess. Sometimes, the veterinarian places a latex drainage tube into the abscess to allow it to drain completely. Antibiotic treatment is also necessary. The veterinarian may begin treatment with an antibiotic injection, but will usually send the cat home with antibiotic pills or liquid for you to give at home. In most cases, these abscesses heal within 5 days.
Cellulitis cannot be drained like an abscess, so the only way to treat it is with antibiotics. Again, the veterinarian may give the cat an antibiotic injection, then send the cat home on oral antibiotics.
(___ Below are specific home care instructions for your cat.)
Are there any complications?
Fight wounds usually heal quickly and without complications, provided the cat receives proper veterinary care. If a fight wound has not healed within 5-7 days, contact your veterinarian. Two viral diseases in cats can compromise the immune system and impair the body's ability to combat infections. They are feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).
These viral infections can be detected by blood test. If the cat is negative for both of these viruses, the veterinarian may recommend other tests to investigate why the cat is not recovering as quickly as it should.
Infection with either FeLV or FIV can actually be a complication of a fight wound. Cat bites are one of the major ways these viruses are spread from cat to cat. The saliva of infected cats can contain large amounts of virus, so a bite from an infected cat is almost like injecting the virus into an uninfected cat.
Is there any way to protect my cat from these viruses?
Infection with FeLV can be prevented by vaccination. If your cat has a fight wound but is not currently vaccinated against FeLV, your veterinarian will probably recommend that you have the cat tested. It usually takes 2-3 weeks for FeLV infection to become detectable in a recently infected cat. So, it is best to wait and have the cat tested in 2-3 weeks' time. If the test is negative, the cat should be vaccinated against FeLV. Your veterinarian will advise you on when the booster shots should be given to keep your cat protected against this virus.
Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccine to protect against FIV. The best way to protect your cat is to prevent mingling with other cats. Like HIV (the AIDS virus) in humans, FIV has a long incubation period. So, testing for this virus 2-3 weeks after a fight wound has been found is not useful. If the test is negative, it does not mean the cat is not infected.
Is there any risk to humans?
The types of bacteria that infect fight wounds in cats can cause infection in humans if the pus contacts an open wound or cut on the person's skin. But keeping any wounds covered and washing your hands thoroughly after handing the cat are usually sufficient to minimize your risks.
If you have been bitten by a cat, contact your physician immediately. Cat bites can cause nasty infections in people.
How can I prevent my cat from fighting?
One way of preventing fighting is to keep your cat indoors, away from "strange" cats. If you have more than one cat, your cats may still squabble among themselves, like children. But they are unlikely to cause the types of wounds that can result from fighting between strange cats.
Uncastrated male cats fight over their territory the most, and are more likely to roam into another cat's territory. Neutering (castration) usually decreases or eliminates the fighting in male cats. A neutered male cat may still defend his territory, but he will not roam as much as an uncastrated male. Female cats may also defend their territory, whether or not they are spayed.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR HOME CARE:
(The items that apply to you and your cat are checked)
___ (a) Follow the instructions for giving the oral antibiotics, finishing the entire course.
(b) Return the cat in days for another injection of antibiotic.
___ Call our office for an appointment if drainage from the abscess continues for more than a few days, or if the skin wound is not closed in 5 days.
___ Return the cat in ____ days to have the drainage tube removed.
___ Make an appointment for 2-3 weeks' time to test for FeLV. If the test is negative, we can begin a vaccination schedule to prevent this infection.
Please call our office if your cat becomes more depressed, stops eating, or otherwise seems unwell over the next 24-48 hours. But do not give any human drugs, such as aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol®), as some of these drugs are toxic to cats.