What Are Burns in Cats?
Burns are direct damage to the skin caused by an external source, affecting one or more layers of skin and underlying structures (the subcutaneous and muscular layers). This damage also causes systemic complications like dehydration. Burns are common in cats.
Types of Burns in Cats
Thermal burns are caused by exposure to or direct contact with excessive heat. The most common thermal burns in cats are burned paw pads from jumping onto a stovetop. Other exposures are excessive heat from radiators, electric heating pads, fire, boiling water, heat lamps, and motor vehicle mufflers and engines.
Chemical burns are caused by contact with a caustic (corrosive) chemical or chemical fumes. Cats are most commonly exposed to chemical burns through contact with acids, drain cleaners (such as lye), gasoline, and paint thinners. The areas most affected are those in contact with the chemical.
Electrical burns in cats occur when they chew on live electrical wires—those that are plugged in. The shock can cause burns around and inside the mouth. Although uncommon, contact with electric fences and power lines may also cause electrical burns in cats.
Mechanical burns are caused by friction against the skin. These burns will appear where the skin is in contact with an object such as carpet, a rope, or tires (for example, by being dragged under a car or motorcycle).
Frostbite is damage caused to the skin due to extreme cold. When exposed to the cold for long periods, the body reduces blood flow (particularly to the extremities in order to direct blood to vital organs), which will cause tissues to freeze, causing severe tissue injury. Frostbite is most likely to occur on body parts farthest from the heart and in tissues with the most exposed surface area.
Radiation therapy can be an effective method for treating tumors in pets. Even with appropriate use, a potential side effect is a burn on the areas receiving therapy.
Classification for Burns
Burn wounds are categorized by the depth of the injury to the skin:
Superficial (first-degree) burns involve only the outermost layer of the skin. These burns redden the skin and are painful to the touch. Hair may be singed or missing. First-degree burns heal within a few days, with minimal care.
Partial-thickness (second-degree) burns involve the outer and deeper layers of the skin. These burns cause redness, blistering, and draining wounds on the skin. They take a couple of weeks to heal and are at high risk of infection.
Full-thickness (third-degree) burns affect all layers of the skin and the underlying subcutaneous tissues. These burns cause loss of pain sensation in the affected area, and the formation of a scab. It forms within 7-10 days and appears as a thick, black, firm crust with clearly defined borders and discharge beneath it. Third-degree burns often require surgical treatment, such as skin grafts, and leave permanent scarring.
Are Burns in Cats a Medical Emergency?
The depth and extent of the initial contact with the burn source are dependent on the amount of heat generated and the length of exposure. From the initial point of contact, a radius of skin damage can develop over the next few days, and medical attention is highly recommended.
After an assessment of the physical injuries, a veterinarian will do bloodwork to evaluate a cat’s internal organ function and electrolyte levels. With increasing severity in burns, electrolyte abnormalities are common and need to be corrected with intravenous (IV) fluids. Blood pressure changes due to fluid loss also need to be corrected by IV fluids. Infected areas of the skin need deep cleaning, often under sedation.
Treatment of Burns in Cats
The treatment depends on the type of burn, severity of injury, and location. The full extent of the injuries may take up to three days to develop. During this time, burn injuries and tissue damage can continue to progress. Providing your vet with information such as the source of the burn, name of the chemical (if involved), length of time your cat was exposed, how long ago the exposure happened, and any home treatments you may have started will expedite treatment procedures. Also note the extent, duration, and severity of your cat’s symptoms.
First-degree burns can often be treated symptomatically, without any need for diagnostic testing. If presented quickly, chilled saline can be applied to the wound along with some pain medication.
Second-degree burns and those covering less than 15% of the body usually require wound dressings to aid healing, and antibiotics to treat potential skin infections. Additionally, anti-inflammatories and pain medications may be indicated.
Third-degree burns require diagnostic testing and hospitalization. These burns and those covering more than 15% of the body can cause shock, so affected cats will require IV fluids support, supplemental oxygen, and IV pain relief.
When the skin is disrupted by a burn, large amounts of bodily fluids evaporate through the wound, so IV fluids are used to prevent dehydration and correct low blood pressure. During recovery, nutrition requirements are triple the normal amount. So cats that are not eating well will benefit from feeding tubes to ensure their nutritional intake is adequate.
Burns covering over 50% of the body require intense at-home wound management after hospitalization. At home, bandages will need to be changed daily. Also, cats unable to walk need to be turned every four hours to prevent sores from forming. For electrical burns, hospitalization is often needed for 24-48 hours to monitor for delayed systemic effects.
Recovery of Burns in Cats
At home, do not apply ointments or ice to the affected areas on the skin. Ointments will harbor bacteria and encourage infection. Exposure to ice or extreme cold may exacerbate tissue damage. Use extreme caution when handling a cat that is suffering from a burn. This painful condition will make even a gentle cat aggressive. Do not use any liquids (such as lemon juice, hydrogen peroxide, bleach, or alcohol) on any blisters or wounds.
First-degree burns have a good recovery rate and prognosis. Some hair may not grow back fully, but pets can otherwise lead a normal life. Prognosis worsens for second- and third-degree burns. As the body are that is affected grows, these types of burns can lead to death from secondary complications such as dehydration and infection.
Prognosis for pets that survive an initial shock is generally good. But, like chemical burns, recovery depends on the severity of the wound damage and systemic complications.
Burn Prevention in Cats
There are many exposures to burns in and around the home. For cats with access to the outdoors, the risk and dangers increase. Precautions to prevent burns in cats include:
Train and prevent your cat from jumping onto stovetops and chewing on cords.
Limit unrestricted outdoor activity.
Keep all household cleaning and other chemical products (such as paint products) in a closed cabinet.
Clean up any spilled chemicals immediately.
Hide or cover exposed electrical wires.
Featured Image: iStock.com/Maria Sannikova
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