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Bites, Puncture Wounds, and Abscesses in Dogs and Cats

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Bites and puncture wounds can both lead to abscesses in dogs and cats.  Puncture wounds can be caused by fights with another animal, stepping on a nail or other sharp object, or even running into a broken branch or stick.  These problems are most common in pets that roam free outside, especially male cats.  Unlike simple lacerations or abrasions, bites and punctures tend to carry material into the wound, which can seal over and trap bacteria inside.  When this happens, the wound often becomes infected and can develop into a large, pus-filled abscess.  Punctures that penetrate completely through the wall of the chest or abdomen are rare, but they are especially serious problems that require emergency treatment and surgery.

Abscesses are especially common in cat-fight wounds.  Numerous bacteria are found in the mouth, and they are carried deep into the skin and underlying tissues by the very sharp teeth of cats.  The small wounds left by the bite on the skin surface seal over quickly, trapping the bacteria deep inside.  Within a day or two, a large pus pocket develops, which may be warm and fluctuating to the touch.  Yellow, gray, or greenish pus may ooze from the wound, and the pus pocket may rupture spontaneously after several days.

The signs of illness depend on the area affected and the nature of the bite or puncture.  Punctures on the foot or leg can cause lameness and swelling of the limb.  Nearby lymph nodes, such as those in the neck, the front of the chest, or behind the knee, can become swollen in response to infection.  Cats with abscesses often have a fever, stop eating, and may appear quite ill.

Your veterinarian will examine your pet closely, looking for any signs of a puncture or bite wound, including a deeper abscess.  In some cases, x-rays may be recommended to look for foreign material and to gauge the depth and severity of the puncture or wound.

Antibiotics are needed to fight infection.  Anesthesia and surgery are often necessary to open, drain, and flush out the abscess.  Cats in particular often recovery rapidly after the abscess has been drained.

In some cases, your vet will place a drain in the wound to prevent the skin opening from sealing over and to allow continued drainage during healing.  Warm compresses can be used to stimulate drainage and blood flow.  Puncture wounds on the feet often respond well to foot soaks in warm, antiseptic solution.

Q&A

What pets are most at risk of bites and puncture wounds?

Pets that roam free outside, especially male cats, are at greatest risk of receiving bite or other puncture wounds.

Why do pet bite wounds get infected so quickly?

Numerous bacteria that live in the mouth are carried deep into the skin and underlying tissues by the teeth.  The small wounds left by the bite on the skin surface seal over quickly, trapping the bacteria deep inside.

How are puncture wounds and abscesses in pets treated?

Most puncture wounds require antibiotics to combat infection.  Abscesses are usually opened surgically, flushed, and then left open to drain.

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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