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Understanding and Treating Abscesses in Pets

It can be hard to detect small wounds, bites, and scrapes underneath our pet’s fur. If you have ever found a considerable (and possibly oozing) wound on your pet that seems like it came out of nowhere, your pet may have an abscess. Here is everything you need to know about abscesses, and what to do if you find one on your pet!

Cat resting on cat

What is an abscess?

When small wounds occur (think any tear or opening of the skin), there are times when the skin starts to heal over before the wound has been able to be thoroughly disinfected and treated, which can trap bacteria under the skin and create an infection that usually manifests as a pocket of pus (aka an abscess). If untreated, or if your pet continues to lick or chew at it (they are often itchy, inflamed, and overall uncomfortable), the abscess may rupture, creating an open wound. 

What are the signs/symptoms of an abscess?

Signs of an abscess may include a large bump or pocket at an area previously associated with an animal bite, insect bite, or other puncture of the skin, pus or discharge oozing from the wound (color may range from white to yellow to green to pink/red), matted or wet hair around the area from discharge and/or constant grooming/licking of the area, hair loss around the area, and red or inflamed skin.

How long does it take an abscess to form?

An abscess can form fairly quickly under the right circumstances, especially as some wounds are hard to detect. For example, an animal bite (like a dog or cat) may create a very small puncture that doesn’t produce a lot of blood or visible entry point, especially if your pet has a lot of fur or dark colored fur that makes it difficult to identify blood. These are a common cause of skin abscesses as the small entry point usually heals quickly, trapping all of the bacteria from the tooth inside. Pets may try to nurse their wounds on their own, introducing even more bacteria from their mouth to the area. Abscesses can sometimes form in as little as 1 to 2 days after the incident.

What should I do if I discover an abscess on my pet?

The first thing you should do if you discover an abscess is call your veterinarian. Because the presence of an abscess indicates that there is an infection, further treatment including proper cleaning of the wound and medications to help with pain and inflammation or antibiotics is often warranted.

Because abscesses can be messy, you can gently wipe the the fur surrounding the area off with a damp towel or washcloth. If there is a lot of pus or the abscess is actively oozing while you are trying to travel to your veterinarian’s office, you can put a clean t-shirt or towel over the area.

How are abscesses treated?

Depending on the size, location, and severity of the infection, there are a couple of different treatments for abscesses. Smaller abscesses on the skin may respond well to being drained in-office by a veterinarian and medications such as antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. Larger abscesses might require some sedation to properly flush the wound and clean the area, and may require the placement of tubes. The tubes are temporarily placed in the skin to maintain an opening for any remaining pus to exit the skin while the infection clears up, and are removed as the wound heals. Sometimes medication may be “packed” into the abscess to accelerate the healing process.

Regardless of the size, your veterinarian may recommend a “clip and clean” which usually involves shaving away the fur around the area and thoroughly flushing the wound. Removing the fur allows the area to “breathe” and helps keep the area clean while it heals. An e-collar is almost always recommended because the healing process can sometimes be a little itchy or uncomfortable, and we want to make sure pets are not able to chew, lick, or scratch the area.

Important advice regarding abscessed wounds:

Please do not attempt to bandage a wound yourself. There is an art to animal bandage wrapping and it is something that should only be done by a veterinarian (even vet techs leave this up to the doctor to do) as improper wrapping can result in poor blood circulation, which slows down healing and risks loss of limb.

Please do not attempt to disinfect the wound yourself at home. Owners sometimes gravitate towards first aid solutions like hydrogen peroxide or alcohol to kill germs, but these can actually slow down the healing process and are not ideal or particularly effective for treating an active infection. Additionally, please avoid putting any topical creams such as neosporin or benadryl cream on the wound without instruction from your veterinarian.

Although abscesses can be uncomfortable, please do not give your pet any medication without instruction from your veterinarian. Over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen help us with pain and inflammation, but are extremely toxic to pets, especially cats. Even a single dose can have catastrophic consequences, including severe toxicity and death. Additionally, please avoid giving pets any antibiotics you may have at home. Certain antibiotics are prescribed for different types of wounds, and giving the wrong antibiotic or only a partial round of antibiotics can lead to future resistance and make the infection harder to get rid of.

Sometimes, other pets will try to nurse their housemate’s wounds. If your other pets keep trying to lick the affected pet’s wounds, please be sure to separate them as we want to avoid introducing any more bacteria to that area.

Unless given the OK by your vet, avoid bathing or grooming your pet until the abscess has fully healed if you are unable to wash your pet without getting the affected area wet. Additionally, no swimming for the same reason!

Please give us a call at 972-347-6100 if you have noticed any strange new lumps or wounds on your pet!

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