Mrs. Johnson had fluffy on the table in front of me. In the past two days he had developed a large lump on his rear end near the base of his tail, and today he wasn’t willing to eat or move around very much. He wasn’t even pestering her to let him go outside, an essential part of his daily routine. Fluffy made it clear that lifting his tail to have his temperature taken was painful for him, but even though Fluffy wouldn’t reveal his secret, the number on the thermometer, 105.4 (cats usually range between 100 and 102.5 degrees F), told the story. Fluffy had had a hostile encounter with another neighborhood cat and an infected bite wound was the result.
If you have ever watched two cats meet outside you have probably noticed that the interaction is rarely warm and welcoming. When two cats’ perceived territories overlap a screaming hissy fit ensues. Cats that are wading into the fight aggressively tend to get bitten on the head, neck, and forearms. Cats that are fleeing the scene tend to get bitten on the backside near the tail.
Cat teeth are like little hypodermic needles coated with a wide assortment of nasty bacteria. They poke easily through the skin, leaving a load of bacteria behind, and then exit, often without causing much bleeding or leaving mark that is visible through the hair. Immediately after the incident a cat may seem like nothing serious has happened, but under the normal looking exterior those bacteria are finding a nice home in the crushed and injured tissue and they are starting to multiply. After about four days a pocket of pus, known as an abscess, develops where the bite was. At this point the cat is usually painful and running a fever. The natural progression for an abscess is to gradually grow and push outward to the weakest spot in the skin until it breaks open and gushes its bloody, foul smelling goo. This only seems to happen at two o’clock in the morning and only on your favorite couch. Should you ever find yourself in this situation, it is not one of the most pleasant things, but it is probably not an emergency situation. Your cat will need evaluation and antibiotics but this can usually wait until your regular veterinarian is open.
When we find abscesses before they break the appropriate treatment is to anesthetize the cat and open and drain the infection and then put the cat on antibiotics and pain management. This usually saves days of pain and misery and can help avoid potential complications. Of course the best approach is to stop the abscess before it starts. If you know that your cat got in a fight and has been bitten, even if it looks like it wasn’t anything serious, you can save your cat some suffering and yourself some couch cleanup if you can get him seen and on antibiotics right away.
Another danger to cats when they are bitten by other cats is the possibility of contracting Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, or FIV. This is a cat specific disease that is very analogous to HIV in people. Infected cats may be asymptomatic carriers for years until all of a sudden the virus starts causing a multitude of catastrophic problems that almost inevitably result in death. There is a test for the virus, but there is no direct treatment. Any cats known to be infected with FIV should never be allowed outside because a bite from an infected cat will transmit the virus to a new cat. A newly infected cat will not test positive for FIV for three to six months after contracting the virus.
I won’t get on a soapbox about never letting your cat outside. There are many great reasons to not allow cats to go outside, but I understand that there are some cats that truly can’t be indoor only cats. Most people who have those types of cats understand the risks and just have to factor in much more quality time at their veterinarian’s practice for fixing the inevitable problems that come with going outside.