The familiar sounds of late night cries and squeals are often the first obvious sign that a cat fight has taken place. Cats are instinctively territorial. They fight with other cats to protect or acquire more territory. In the process of defending their 'borders', cats often end up with wounds and in some cases the wounds become infected. Fight wounds including cat abscesses are something we see and treat every week. Learn more about the effects of fighting as well as important information every cat owner should know here.
Cats naturally have a lot of bacteria in their mouths. When one cat bites or scratches another they are introducing bacteria into the wound area, almost like injecting bacteria into the other cat. Normally the puncture wound is quite small but often quite deep and the surface will seal within a few hours, trapping the bacteria under the skin. For several days there may be no sign of infection but gradually swelling and pain at the puncture site will occur.
There are two general types of infection. If the site of the bite is covered by loose skin, a pocket of pus will develop forming an abscess. In areas where the skin is not loose such as on the foot or the tail the infection spreads through the tissues and causes cellulitis.
Occasionally there may be more serious consequences such as a septic arthritis (infection of a joint space), osteomyelitis (infection of bone) or pyothorax (the chest cavity becomes filled with pus).
Often your cat may be just a little off colour or slightly off their food. You may notice lameness or crying/growling when touched in certain places. They may be even reluctant to move at all. All cats are different and some will get sick quite quickly, others may take some time.
If you know that your cat has bite wounds, it is best to see your veterinarian straight away. Antibiotics given within twenty-four hours will usually stop the spread of infection and may prevent the development of an abscess. If several days have elapsed since the fight, an abscess will usually form, requiring more involved medical treatment.
Most cats require a general anaesthetic to effectively treat the infection. Once anaesthetised, the area will be shaved and disinfected. It may then be necessary to lance the abscess, which removes the pus, and then flush the wound with sterile saline. Sometimes, abscesses form "pockets" that need to be broken down by probing and flushing. Also, the skin surrounding the wound can become necrotic (dead tissue) and may need to be removed.
Your cat may also need a plastic "drain" inserted surgically that allows area of the abscess to continue draining for the next few days. The wounds may also need to be sutured. Your cat will be given antibiotics and often anti-inflammatories that help to reduce the pain and the fever. An Elizabethan collar may be applied to stop your cat biting/licking at the wound or from pulling the drain. If not currently vaccinated against FIV or Feline Leukaemia, a blood test may be recommended in 6 - 8 weeks.
Entire male cats are very territorial; they will defend an area around their home and continually try to expand the borders of their territory. The desire for more territory and the need to keep intruders out of their existing territory means that they can fight with other cats. In contrast, desexed male cats defend a smaller area of territory around their home. If this territory is breached by another cat they will defend it by fighting. The frequency of fighting will depend on the number of cats in the neighborhood and particularly the presence of entire male cats. Female cats will also defend their territory by fighting with other cats.
Puncture wounds heal very quickly so there is often nothing to see or feel. The most common sites of bites are on the head, forelimbs or at the base of the tail. If cats have been bitten on a limb, the leg is usually painful and lameness is seen. It may be possible to feel heat and swelling in the area of the bite. Some cats may just be lethargic and have a fever. Many cats will excessively groom the injured area.
This may reflect inadequate treatment where the abscess never completely resolves. Alternatively, it may reflect an individual cat's method of fighting; the cat that runs away will tend always to get bitten on the tail base whereas the aggressive attacking cat will tend always to be bitten on the head or forelimbs.
Desexing will assist in the territorial behaviour of cats but it will not completely eliminate fighting. Confining the cat to your house or to a cat enclosure, particularly at night when cat fights are most common, will reduce the number of bites your cat sustains.
It's also a good idea to discourage other cats coming into your backyard. For example, try not to leave food outside that will attract other neighbourhood cats.
Bite wounds are considered to be the main route of transmission of some important feline infections, most notably, Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) and Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV). Blood tests should be performed after any bite wounds to diagnose these infections. It's also a very good idea to have your cat vaccinated against FIV and Leukemia to prevent their transmission .
To reduce the chance of your cat fighting with other cats, we recommend desexing and keeping them inside at night. It is a requirement of the Cat Act 2011 that all cats are desexed by 6 months of age unless you are registered with your council as a breeder.