Why Is My Cat’s Face Swollen?
Facial swelling in cats is usually a noticeable sign of inflammation within or under the skin. You will usually see it around a cat’s eyes or nose area, but sometimes you can see swelling on a cat’s cheek or under their chin.
Facial swelling can show up suddenly or over time and is usually a cause for concern. It can be caused by a variety of medical issues, all of which require appropriate diagnosis and therapy to make the swelling go down.
What To Do if Your Cat’s Face Is Swollen
If your cat’s face suddenly swells and/or is paired with any of the following, take them to the emergency veterinarian as soon as possible:
Having trouble eating
If your cat’s face has slowly become swollen and your cat is otherwise acting happy and alert, and is eating well, then it is OK to wait a few days to see your veterinarian.
There are few to no at-home remedies for facial swelling in cats, though. Do not give your cat any medications that are intended for people, as some contain ingredients that are toxic—sometimes lethal—for animals, even over-the-counter drugs.
Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatments of Facial Swelling in Cats
Causes and treatments of facial swelling in cats include:
Anaphylaxis (allergic reaction): This can occur from an insect sting, vaccine reaction, drug reaction, environmental allergen (such as mold, dust, pollen), or foods (rarely). You will usually also see intense itching, watery reddened eyes, and/or hives, but in the case of anaphylaxis, it can progress to severe lethargy, weakness, collapse, pale to white gum color, trouble breathing, vomiting, and increased heart rate (signs of shock).
If you see these severe signs of anaphylaxis, you need to bring your cat to an emergency veterinarian for speedy assessment and treatment. Treatment usually involves antihistamine and steroid injections, IV fluid therapy, and in severe cases, medications to stabilize blood pressure.
Tooth root abscess: Plaque and tartar accumulation under the gumline leads to bacterial infection at the root of the affected tooth. This eventually causes a walled-off infection, called an abscess, to form at the tooth root.
Often, this infection can be present for awhile before you see any signs of it, but eventually you will begin to notice swelling in one cheek, usually under the eye. This swelling can eventually get worse, become painful, and even rupture and drain if left untreated. Often your cat will also drop food, paw at their mouth, rub their face, have bad breath, have trouble chewing, or drool excessively.
To diagnose a tooth root abscess, the vet will take dental X-rays while your cat is sedated. It can be treated with antibiotics and pain medications only for so long, because the diseased tooth will eventually cause problems again when you stop the medications. The tooth will usually need to be pulled to fix the problem, or your vet may refer your cat to a board-certified veterinary dentist for a possible root canal.
Oral/facial neoplasia (cancer): Unfortunately, oral cancer is common in cats, with the most common types squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. These cancers are often fast-growing and locally aggressive, leading to severe facial swelling. The swelling is often on one side of the face, but it can progress to affect both sides. Cats will often have trouble eating, drool excessively, drop food, and have bad breath.
A vet will need to do a thorough oral examination, usually while your cat is under sedation, followed by a biopsy. Then they will determine how advanced the cancer is, with the help of a CT scan or X-rays. Treatment will depend on the type of cancer and how far along it is, ranging from surgical removal to radiation and chemotherapy.
Salivary gland adenitis/sialocele: Inflammation or infection of the salivary glands can lead to swelling of one or both sides of the face, most commonly under the chin. This is often diagnosed based on examining your cat and feeling their salivary glands. The vet will also assess your cat’s response to antibiotic and anti-inflammatory medications. If medical therapy fails, sometimes CT scans, surgery, and biopsies are required for appropriate treatment.
Wounds: Wounds on the face can lead to swelling due to inflammation in the skin and the fatty tissue under the skin (called subcutaneous tissue). The vet will locate the wounds, determine how extensive they are, clean them appropriately, and treat them with antibiotics and possibly pain medication until they are completely healed.
Acetaminophen toxicity: Acetaminophen (Tylenol®) is highly toxic to cats and should never be given to them. Sometimes, however, curious cats still manage to get ahold of this medication. After ingesting acetaminophen, a cat’s entire face and paws can swell up, and they may have dark brown gums and urine.
Ingestion can lead to severe anemia or liver failure, which is why it’s important to seek emergency medical care if you see complete facial swelling and you don’t know the cause, or if you know that your cat ingested acetaminophen. Your cat may need hospitalization with IV fluids, blood transfusions, or liver detoxification.
Eosinophilic granuloma complex (EGC): This is a complex made up of three types of skin lesions in cats—eosinophilic plaque, eosinophilic granuloma, and indolent ulcers of the skin. The cause is unknown, but the condition is suspected to be caused by a hypersensitivity (allergic) reaction and may be inherited.
The lesions occur most commonly around the mouth—the lips, tongue, and gums—or on the limbs and abdomen. The skin lesions can range from small, raised, reddened bumps to large, swollen, painful, bleeding sores. The most common things you’ll see with this complex are ulcers that show up where the lip meets the skin; they can cause facial or lip swelling.
Diagnosis is usually done via fine needle aspiration (FNA) and cytology or biopsy. These lesions are usually treated by eliminating anything the cat is allergic to, steroid therapy, or giving other drugs that modulate the immune system (such as cyclosporine and azathioprine).
Since most of these medical issues require therapy immediately or quickly once the facial swelling is noted, it’s important to seek veterinary care. Your veterinarian will likely ask you:
When you first saw the swelling and if it has gotten worse.
What type of food and treats you’ve been feeding your cat and if you are using plastic bowls (as plastic is a common cat allergen).
Whether there has been any possible toxin or acetaminophen ingestion. Taking this history is helpful in investigating a diagnosis, so it is important to be as thorough as possible.
With facial swelling, if your cat is otherwise acting normal, seems comfortable, and is eating well, then it’s OK to call and schedule the next available appointment with your veterinarian. However, if your cat shows any other signs of illness, bring them to an emergency veterinary hospital for immediate evaluation and treatment.
Featured image: iStock.com/Andi Edwards
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