When you think of burns, you usually think of touching something very hot or on fire. Scalding is being burned by hot liquids. Burns, meanwhile, can also be from chemical or electrical causes.
Burn victims often have other problems like shock or smoke inhalation. Cats can be treated, but the more extensive the burns are, the more complicated the treatment. In fact, some burns are severe enough that euthanasia is the only humane choice.
What to Watch For
Cats are most likely to get burns on their feet from walking on hot surfaces, like cook tops or freshly tarred roads, or on surfaces treated with chemicals, such as bleach. They can also get burns on their back from hot things falling on them, like grease spatter. The ears and nose can get sunburn, especially if these areas are white.
Burns are classified on the depth of skin damage:
- First degree burns will redden the skin, but all the skin layers are intact. Hair may be singed or missing. There will be some minor pain or discomfort.
- Second degree burns are characterized by blisters in addition to the redness, which indicates that several layers of the skin have been damaged. There is also more pain.
- Third degree burns go through the full thickness of the skin and damage the tissue underneath. The skin on the edges may be blackened (eschar).
Cats with second and third degree burns are at risk of shock, infection and dehydration. If the burns are from chemicals and the cat licks the chemical, the cat may show signs related to ingesting the chemical. If the burns are from fire, there may be respiratory problems from smoke inhalation.
Most burns are thermal (hot objects) or chemical in origin.
If you can do so safely, it is best to begin treatment for burns at home. Wrapping the cat in a towel may help restrain your cat while you are treating him.
For thermal burns:
- First and second degree burns should be flushed with lots of cool water for about 20 minutes. This can be accomplished by covering the area with a wet cloth and pouring water gently onto the cloth, or immersing the burned area in cool water. Cats do not like sprayed water, so avoid that if possible.
- For first degree burns, once most of the heat has dissipated from the area, pat the area gently with a dry towel to absorb excess water; do not rub the area, as that can damage the skin. Aloe vera gel can be applied to the area in small amounts. Do not use butter or other ointments, as they will not help and may make things worse.
- For second degree burns, your cat will need to be seen by your veterinarian, so leave the wet cloth in place as you travel to your vet.
- For third degree burns, the cat will likely start going into shock. Cover the worst burned areas with a wet cloth, then wrap your cat in a dry towel or blanket and get him to your veterinarian as soon as possible.
For chemical burns:
- Protect yourself by wearing gloves, goggles and other safety gear.
- Use water to rinse off the chemical. If the chemical is oil-based, use a little dish liquid to help remove the chemical from first and second degree burns; be sure to rinse the soap off afterward. Since cats hate sprayed water, it is better to place the cat in a bucket filled with water and replace the water every few minutes, or place the cat in an empty bucket and gently pour the water over the cat..
- For third degree burns, keep the burned area covered with a wet cloth as much as possible to keep more chemical from washing into the wound.
- Once the chemical has been washed away as much as possible, cover the burn area with a fresh, wet cloth, wrap your cat in a dry towel and take him to your veterinarian.
- Bring the container or label with you to the veterinarian's office or emergency hospital; it will help them identify the chemical and provide specific treatment.
The diagnosis is based on the information you provide and examination of the cat. Additional tests may be needed if there is suspicion of smoke inhalation or chemical ingestion.
The burned area will be shaved and cleaned as needed. If there is smoke inhalation, chemical ingestion, shock, or other problems, your veterinarian will start treatment for those as well. The veterinarian will prioritize the problems your cat has and deal with the most serious first. Specific treatment for burns will involve the following:
- First degree burns are often treatable at home or with a single visit to the veterinarian.
- Second degree burns may or may not require bandages. Antibiotics and pain medication will usually be prescribed, and possibly a topical salve. If bandages are used, they will be changed frequently until the blisters are sufficiently healed.
- Third degree burns will require hospitalization. The cat will most likely be placed on intravenous (IV) fluids to counteract shock and fluid loss from the burned area. Antibiotics and pain medication will be administered. The burned area will be bandaged to prevent skin infection and speed healing. The bandages will be changed daily at first, with cleaning and debridement (removal of dead tissue) done each time. This may require sedation. Your cat will probably be in the hospital for several days until all the tissue under the bandages appears healthy. There will still be a lot of care that will be needed at home after your cat is released.
Cats may also suffer from electrical burns and sunburn (a type of actinic or radiation burn). These are treated similar to thermal burns.
Living and Management
Some of the damage caused by the burns may take a day or two to become evident. If your cat is not hospitalized, you need to monitor him carefully for signs of the burned area getting worse, or other health problems developing.
The most difficult part of at home care will be the bandages. It is very important that they stay clean and dry at all times. Do not let your cat chew, lick or scratch the bandages or the burned area. An Elizabethan collar may help accomplish this. Bandage changes should be done as scheduled. If you notice any chafing, odor, or discharge, or the wound looks worse at any bandage change, your cat needs to be seen by your veterinarian. Some of the initial bandage changes may need to be done at the vet’s office under sedation.
Third degree burns may take a month or more to heal; it is important to stick with the treatment schedule your veterinarian prescribes for the entire healing time. Some burns are extensive enough to require skin grafts, but these are not done until all the underlying tissue is healed.
There are many things around the house and outside that could accidentally burn your cat. Take as many precautions as possible to prevent your cat from coming in contact with these dangers.