Wound Care for Cats

Katie Grzyb, DVM
Written by:
Published: September 1, 2022

Our feline friends tend to be adventurous and curious, which can get them into some trouble. Sometimes this adventurous spirit can lead to altercations with other animals and/or trauma that leads to wounds.

Many wounds, such as minor abrasions, bruises, or small cuts, require little to no treatment and can heal on their own, while others may require more intensive treatment.

Here’s an all-in-one guide to cat wounds, from how to identify the most likely cause to how to clean the wound and whether you need to see a vet.

Types of Cat Wounds

There are multiple types of wounds that can occur in cats. These include:

Puncture Wounds

Often, puncture wounds are caused by animal bites/scratches and/or foreign objects that penetrate the skin, such as sticks, thorns, glass, or metal objects.

Punctures are often very small, but they can cause trauma to the underlying tissues that you can’t see, especially if they are from an animal bite.

If you find a puncture wound on your pet, especially if it is bleeding, draining pus, swollen, bruised, or painful, bring them to the veterinarian within 24 hours so they can properly inspect the wound and any possible tissue damage while your pet is under sedation.

Bite Wounds

If you know that your pet was bitten by another animal, and you see bite marks or abrasions, it is vital to bring your pet to the veterinarian. They can thoroughly inspect the wound, flush it out, and determine if it needs stitches.

An immediate ER veterinary visit after an animal bite is best, especially if your cat or the animal who bit your cat is not up to date with their rabies vaccine. States have differing rabies vaccination and quarantine laws, but these laws are necessary to keep you and your cat as safe as possible.

Your veterinarian will often booster your cat with a rabies vaccine and may recommend a rabies quarantine if your cat was not up to date on their vaccine series.

Minor Cuts and Abrasions

Often, the trauma is superficial and limited to the skin. As long as your cat is not licking incessantly at the wounds and there is no swelling, bleeding, pus, odor, or pain, these can heal on their own with little to no therapy.

Fur can get stuck to these wounds, making it difficult to see the extent of the wound, so you may need to see the vet so they can properly clip the fur, assess, and clean the wounds, even if they are superficial.

Abscesses

Cats are prone to abscesses, which are walled-off infections often found under the skin. These tend to be caused by puncture wounds after the skin closes over bacteria transferred from teeth, nails, or foreign objects.

Abscesses can start out flat and cause inflammation of the surrounding tissue (cellulitis), leading to fever, lethargy, and pain. They will swell and become warm, painful pockets of fluid that can be moved around.

Eventually, due to underlying pressure, they will burst, expelling a large amount of smelly, pus-like discharge and bloody fluid. Abscesses can make a cat feel very ill and can sometimes cause very high fevers that require hospitalization.

It is important to bring your cat to the veterinarian if you notice any puncture wounds, swelling of the skin, or bleeding or draining wounds, especially if accompanied by lethargy, not eating, and/or not wanting to move around. Often, these abscesses require lancing to allow draining, thorough exploration, and cleaning. If an abscess if large, surgical drain placement may be necessary for appropriate healing.

Sores or Blisters

Chronic issues can cause skin wounds. A condition called feline eosinophilic granuloma complex can cause raised, reddened skin lesions or cancers of the skin. These often show up as smaller masses or lesions that get more inflamed as they grow.

If you notice any abnormal masses on your cat, it’s important to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for assessment. They may take a sample of cells from the area via fine needle aspirate and cytology, or they may need to biopsy the growth for a definitive diagnosis.

Signs of an Infected Wound on a Cat

A wound that is left to heal on its own can often become infected due to bacterial contamination or overgrowth. Signs of an infected wound include:

  • Swelling

  • Redness, bruising, or other discoloration of the skin

  • Pain

  • Warmth

  • A persistent bloody discharge or pus-like discharge that usually smells

  • Fever

  • Lethargy

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Lameness if the wound is on a leg

How to Clean a Cat’s Wound

Cat wounds should always be assessed by a veterinarian unless they are superficial and seem to be healing quickly. The average healing time for a superficial abrasion is 7 days, and you should see improvement daily.

Here are some things that you can do at home before bringing your cat in to see the veterinarian:

Apply direct pressure with a clean cloth or sterile gauze if the wound is bleeding. Hold the pressure for a full 5 minutes to stop the bleeding. If it doesn’t stop, continue putting pressure on the wound, and bring your cat to an emergency veterinarian as soon as possible.

If the wound appears to be superficial and there’s no bleeding, you can use antiseptic solution or water to gently clean the wound. A syringe may be helpful to flush the wound with water or saline.

Antiseptic solutions are made by diluting concentrated, store-bought solutions that contain either povidone-iodine or chlorhexidine diacetate as the active ingredient.

Do not use alcohol or hydrogen peroxide on the wounds, as these can damage the tissue. Povidone should be diluted to the color of weak tea; chlorhexidine should be diluted to a pale blue color.

If a wound is large or deep or you are unsure of how severe it is, it is safest to disinfect around the wound itself and then bring your pet to a veterinarian.

How to Keep a Cat From Licking Their Wound

It is essential to keep cats from licking their wounds. The best way to do this is by using an Elizabethan collar (e-collar). These should be measured appropriately to your cat to determine the correct size. The collar should not keep your cat from performing daily tasks, such as eating, drinking, and using the litter box.

Do not put bandages on your cat’s legs. An inappropriately placed bandage can lead to more tissue damage due to pressure and moisture. If you are concerned that your cat may require a bandage, place sterile gauze over the wound, gently wrap it with stretchy bandage material, then bring your cat directly to an emergency veterinarian. This should not remain on for longer than an hour, to avoid damage to the skin.

How Vets Treat Cat Wounds

A veterinary team’s goal with wound assessment is to diagnose the type of wound and determine the appropriate therapy to speed healing and avoid infection.

First, your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination of the wound and check for any other wounds. Then they will clip the fur from the wound, if needed, for a comprehensive evaluation. Your vet may need to sedate your cat or give them general anesthesia to fully assess the wound, avoid further pain for your cat, and perform necessary treatment.

The veterinarian may also recommend full bloodwork and x-rays to assess for systemic infection and damage to the underlying tissues (fat, muscle, nerves, ligaments) or bones.

In most cases of moderate to severe wounds, oral or injectable antibiotic therapy is required, as well as anti-inflammatories and pain medications. Sometimes, topical ointments may be recommended by your veterinarian in cases of mild wounds.

These are the specific therapies for some common types of wounds:

  • Small abrasions and lacerations often only need thorough cleaning and can be left open to heal on their own, or they may need a small amount of skin glue.

  • Larger lacerations (long and/or deep) will require careful exploration to assess the underlying tissues under anesthesia/sedation. If the wound happened less than 12 hours ago and is not dirty, then after thorough cleaning, surgical closure with sutures is performed. Surgical drain placement may be necessary. This allows the fluid under the skin to drain continuously and helps lessen the risk of abscess formation. These drains are often removed in 2 to 4 days, once the wound’s fluid production declines.

  • Infected wounds or lacerations, wounds that happened more than 12 hours ago, or wounds that are too large to close require frequent (often daily) cleaning and bandage changes until the wound tissue is healthy and the wound is small enough to allow surgical closure. Surgically closing a large, old, or infected wound only traps contamination and bacteria inside and can lead to larger systemic infections or tissue death (necrosis).

  • Puncture wounds usually have more damage under the skin than what a veterinarian can see in the initial examination. These wounds are thoroughly examined and cleaned/flushed to assess for foreign material, pocketing under the skin, and the extent of underlying tissue damage. Sometimes these wounds are left open to drain for several days after cleaning, and other times, these wounds require surgical removal of dead, damaged, or infected tissues and drain placement.

What to Watch For at Home

Your veterinary team will give you instructions for home care. This includes decreasing your cat’s activity in an effort to speed healing, and often requires keeping your cat indoors. Keeping an e-collar in place during healing is essential so your cat won’t lick the wound, causing more inflammation and infection.

Your veterinarian will recommend that your cat remain indoors until the wound is completely healed. Fly larvae (maggots) love to invade moist, dark, warm spaces, which makes outdoor cat wounds a breeding ground for these pesky insects.

Monitor your cat for the following signs. If you see any of these, contact your veterinarian immediately:

  • Warmth

  • Swelling

  • Pain

  • Discharge

  • Continued bleeding

  • Not eating

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Fever

  • Lethargy

Rechecks and Bandage Care

Your veterinarian will discuss how to clean around drains and/or wounds at home. They will also direct you on how to correctly monitor bandages. If a bandage is wet, soiled, slips down, has any bleeding showing through it, or seems painful to your pet, it is vital that you remove it, have the underlying tissue assessed, and replace the bandage. 

Usually, a recheck examination is recommended within two weeks, depending on the extent of the wound. For example, if a drain is placed, a recheck will be recommended in 2-4 days to assess fluid buildup and to remove the drain. If the wound requires sutures, the skin needs 10-14 days to heal. Bandage changes range from daily (in the case of contaminated wounds) to every week.

Cat Wound Care Supplies to Keep on Hand

Keeping a first aid kit for your pets is a great idea in case of emergency.

Good items to have at home in case of wounds include:

  • Sterile, non-stick gauze

  • Antiseptic solution (povidone-iodine or chlorhexidine diacetate)

  • Saline solution

  • Bandage tape

  • Curved tipped syringes for flushing wounds

  • An appropriately sized Elizabethan collar for your cat  

  • In severe cases of bleeding, a tourniquet can be helpful. It is important to note that tourniquets should ONLY be used for up to 20 minutes at a time, and only under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Featured Image: iStock.com/jcsmily


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