Skin Ulcers in Cats

Barri J. Morrison, DVM
By Barri J. Morrison, DVM on Dec. 5, 2022

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What Are Skin Ulcers in Cats?

Skin lesions or ulcers are open sores or wounds in cats that can appear in various ways and involve different layers of the skin. A lesion or ulcer of the skin is a defect that results from a total loss of the top portion of the skin (epidermis) and at least a portion of the deeper layer of skin (dermis). Ulcers or lesions are typically slow to heal, and proper precautions must be taken to prevent infection.

Skin ulcers in cats can be singular or there can be multiple ulcers throughout different areas of the skin. They can occur anywhere on a cat’s body, but are commonly found on the feet, nose, or lips.

Skin ulcers in cats can be caused by a variety of underlying medical conditions but often result from an accident or trauma, burns, or a skin infection. Outdoor cats might have a higher incidence of skin ulcers secondary to trauma or a burn since they have a greater exposure to potential hazards than do indoor cats.

If you suspect your cat has a skin ulcer, it is important to contact your veterinarian as soon as possible to help determine the best treatment plan that will lead to a full recovery.

Symptoms of Skin Ulcers in Cats

Skin ulcers appear as round, open sores in the skin. The outer border of the ulcer might look raised and thick and as an ulcer forms there may be some discoloration of the skin that eventually will start to turn red and feel warm to the touch.

Skin ulcers often leak a clear or pink-tinged fluid, called serum. The serum can dry into a crust on the surface of the ulcer, which may appear as a scab from dried blood or pus. An infected ulcer can crack and open producing thick, white pus.

Skin ulcers are painful to cats, which may cause them to display other systemic signs such as:

  • Decreased appetite

  • Lethargy

  • Sense of increased itching and scratching

  • Hiding, not acting like themselves

  • Signs of stress such as vomiting, diarrhea, or urinary accidents

Causes of Skin Ulcers in Cats

Skin ulcers can be the result of many different causes including:

  • Burns—thermal, electrical, solar, or chemical burns

  • Trauma

  • Drug reactions or side effects to medications

  • Infectious conditions:

    • Viruses, such as FIV and FeLV

    • Bacterial infections

  • Fungal infections, such as cryptococcosis or histoplasmosis (deep fungal infections) or ringworm (a superficial fungal infection)

  • Parasitical infections­, such as mange or flea bite allergies

  • Cancer

  • Autoimmune diseases

  • Nutritional disorders

  • Frostbite

  • Venomous snake or insect bites

  • Urine scald (secondary to urinary incontinence)

  • Self-mutilation

  • Insect, mosquito, or tick bites

  • Idiopathic (cause unknown)

How Veterinarians Diagnose Skin Ulcers in Cats

Your veterinarian will want a full medical history to perform a complete physical examination. Any history of itchy skin, change in diet, exposure to infectious organisms, and recent travel will be taken into consideration. Your vet will need to know when the skin ulcers were first noted, where your cat spends most of its time, and what medications and/or preventions are taken regularly. Since there are various causes of skin ulcers, diagnosis can involve several different tests.

Testing may include:

  • Skin culture: A large cotton swab is used to sample the surface of the ulceration for the presence of bacteria or fungus.

  • Skin aspiration or aspiration of fluids: A very small needle is passed into the skin lesion to remove cells. An aspiration can also be done to remove any fluid cells from the ulceration. The cells are then placed on a microscope slide and examined for the presence of any abnormal cells or organisms that could cause the skin ulcer.

  • Skin biopsy: A part of the ulcer (and some surrounding tissue) is surgically removed. The biopsied tissue is examined in a laboratory to help determine the underlying cause of the skin ulcer.

Treatment of Skin Ulcers in Cats

Treatment varies depending on the underlying cause of the condition. A treatment plan will be designed for your cat’s specific diagnosis and to alleviate symptoms. Most causes of skin ulcers can be treated with oral or topical medications. If your cat has become systemically ill, it might have to stay in the hospital for a few days for supportive care which includes IV fluids, pain medication, antibiotics, and other treatments.

For benign, solitary ulcers, or those contained within a small area, topical medications might be considered. If an ulcer is caused by a cancerous process, your veterinarian might recommend surgical removal of the lesions. Surgery is best performed on cats that are not systemically ill and those that do not have signs of spread of disease. Spread of disease (i.e., not contained to just the skin) could be indicated by lesions inside the chest or abdomen.  

Pain medications, anti-inflammatory medications, steroids, antibiotics, and antifungals such as Buprenorphine or NSAIDs for pain, Prednisone, Clavamox, and Ketoconazole are among the most common medications used for skin ulcers in cats. It is important to never use any creams, solutions, or alcohols on a cat’s skin lesions without talking to your veterinarian first, as some remedies can make the lesions worse.

Recovery and Management of Skin Ulcers in Cats

Follow-up care depends on the underlying cause and the severity of the skin ulcer. Always follow instructions from your veterinarian when it comes to medication administration and check-up appointments. If skin ulcers get worse at any time, contact your veterinarian immediately.

If your cat requires surgery, a follow-up appointment will be needed to make sure that the surgery site is healing normally and to remove any suture or staples. It’s always recommended to use a recovery or e-collar to protect the skin lesions even after the medications are finished or the stitches have been removed. This ensures that your cat does not self-harm the area.

Prevention of Skin Ulcers in Cats

To help prevent skin ulcers in cats, it’s important to have your cat examined by its veterinarian at least once a year for their annual checkup. If you notice any ulcers on your cat, contact your veterinarian immediately. Always make sure your cat is never exposed to anything that could cause a burn, and that it is always in a safe environment to avoid injuries. If your cat spends time outdoors, ensure that they have plenty of shade, especially during hot summer months. Brushing and grooming a cat often helps the owner keep a close eye on the pet’s skin for any developing lesions. 

Featured Image:

Barri J. Morrison, DVM


Barri J. Morrison, DVM


Barri Morrison was born and raised and currently resides in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. She went to University of Florida for her...

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