Cats are instinctively territorial and fight with other cats to protect or acquire more territory. In the process, cats often end up with fight wounds and in some cases the wounds become infected.
How do cats get infections?
Cats naturally have a lot of bacteria in their sharp mouths and nails. When one cat bites or scratches another they are introducing bacteria into the other cat. Normally the puncture wound is quite small but often deep, and the wound will close within a few hours, trapping the bacteria under the skin. For several days there may be no sign of infection but gradually the bacteria underneath grow in number and the puncture site can swell and become painful.
If the site of the bite is covered by loose skin, a pocket of pus will develop forming an abscess. In areas where the skin is not loose such as on the foot or the tail the infection spreads through the tissues and causes cellulitis.
Occasionally there may be more serious consequences including sepsis (bacteria in blood stream), osteomyelitis (infection of bone) or pyothorax (the chest cavity becomes filled with pus).
What are the signs of cat fight infections?
Often your cat may be just a little off colour or slightly off their food. You may notice limping or vocalising when touched in certain places. They may be even reluctant to move at all. All cats are different and some will get sick quite quickly, others may take some time.
What should you do if you know your cat has been in a fight?
If you know that your cat has fight wounds it is best to see your veterinarian straight away. Antibiotics given within 24 hours will usually stop the spread of infection and may prevent the development of an abscess. If several days have passed since the fight, an abscess will usually form, requiring more involved medical treatment.
What is the treatment for a cat fight abscess?
Most cats require a general anaesthetic and once anaesthetised, the area will be shaved and disinfected. It may then be necessary to lance the abscess, which removes the pus, and then flush the wound with sterile saline. Sometimes, abscesses form “pockets” that need to be explored and flushed and the skin surrounding the wound can become necrotic (dead tissue) and may need to be removed. Occasionally drains are placed to allowed ongoing removal of fluid.
Your cat will be given antibiotics and often anti-inflammatories that help to reduce the pain and the fever. An Elizabethan collar may be applied to stop your cat biting/licking at the wound. If not currently vaccinated against FIV or Feline Leukaemia, a blood test may be recommended in 6 – 8 weeks.
How can you minimise the risk of your cat being in a fight?
Desexing will assist in the territorial behaviour of cats but it will not completely eliminate fighting. Confining the cat to your house or to a cat enclosure, particularly at night when cat fights are most common, will reduce the risk. It’s also a good idea to discourage other cats coming into your backyard. For example, try not to leave food outside that will attract other neighbourhood cats.
Other complications of cat fights
Bite wounds are considered to be the main route of transmission of some important feline infections, including Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) and Feline Leukaemia Virus (FeLV).
What is FIV?
FIV is a complex retrovirus that causes immunodeficiency (weakinging of the cat’s immune system). As a result of immunodeficiency, infected cats are prone to developing other infections and certain types of cancer, although may not show symptoms for a number of years.
Clinical Signs of FIV
Early in the course of infection, the virus is carried to nearby lymph nodes, where it reproduces and then spreads to other lymph nodes throughout the body, resulting in a generalized but usually temporary enlargement of the lymph nodes, often accompanied by fever. This stage of infection may go unnoticed unless the lymph nodes are greatly enlarged.
An infected cat’s health may deteriorate progressively or be characterized by intermittent bouts of illness interspersed with periods of normal health. Sometimes not appearing for years after infection, signs of immunodeficiency can appear anywhere throughout the body.
Poor coat condition and persistent fever with a loss of appetite are common in infected cats. Inflammation of the gums (gingivitis) and mouth (stomatitis) and chronic or recurrent infections of the skin, eyes, urinary bladder, and upper respiratory tract are often present. Persistent diarrhea can also be a problem. Some infected cats experience seizures, behaviour changes, and other neurological disorders.
Slow but progressive weight loss is common in cats with FIV, often followed by severe wasting late in the disease process. Several kinds of cancer and blood diseases are much more common in affected cats.
Treatment of FIV
Unfortunately, there is currently no definitive cure for FIV and the focus is on treating secondary illnesses. Most FIV-positive cats handle the disease well and can live relatively normal lives for years if managed appropriately. Once an FIV infected cat has experienced one or more severe illnesses as a result of infection, however, or if persistent fever and weight loss are present, the prognosis is less favourable.
FIV-infected cats should be desexed and should be confined indoors to prevent spread of FIV infection to other cats in the neighbourhood and to reduce their exposure to infectious agents carried by other animals. They should be fed nutritionally complete and balanced diets, and uncooked food products should be avoided to minimize the risk of food-borne bacterial and parasitic infections.
Regular vet check ups should be scheduled every 6-12 months for general health assessment and weight monitoring and annual blood and urine tests are also recommended. Any noticeable changes to your cat’s health should be discussed and explored with your veterinarian.
The only method of protection is preventing exposure to the virus. As discussed above, preventing fights by keeping cats indoors, especially at night, markedly reduces their risk of contracting FIV .
To reduce the chance of indoor-only cats becoming infected, it is ideal to ensure that only infection-free cats are brought into a household occupied by uninfected cats, or they should be separated.
Unfortunately, many FIV-infected cats are not diagnosed until after they have lived for years with other cats. In these cases, all the other cats in the household should be tested. Ideally, infected cats should be separated from the non-infected ones to reduce viral transmission. However it is important to realise as FIV is transmitted by bite wounds, transmission from an infected cat to a non-infected cat is less likely in households with stable social structures (ie. cats which do not fight).
Vaccines are available to protect against FIV, although these are not considered core vaccines for cats. Not all vaccinated cats will be protected by the vaccine, so preventing exposure is important, even for vaccinated cats. Vaccination will impact future FIV test results, and any vaccination carries the risk of inducing vaccine–associated-sarcoma (a type of cancer) in cats, so it is important that you discuss the advantages and disadvantages of vaccination with your veterinarian to help you decide whether FIV vaccines should be administered to your cat.