With the warmer weather upon us, your feline friend might be asking to go outside and explore more than ever. Unfortunately, the freedom of outdoor exploration comes with a higher risk of injury from other animals including other cats. Over 90% of septic wounds in cats are caused by a cat bite during a cat fight. Dog, rat, raccoon and other animal bites are rarer but can also cause issues.
Cats are very territorial. They will fight to protect or expand their territory as well as if they are backed into a corner. Cat fights are very common in areas with outdoor roaming cats. Fighting cats are not limited to stray cats. Cats that live mainly indoors can also be territorial and instigate fights or sustain injuries fleeing from an attacking cat. Intact male cats are very territorial but neutered male cats and female cats can be territorial as well. It may not be obvious to you right away that your cat has been bitten during a fight. Puncture wounds from a cat bite are small but deep and can heal over quickly. This rapid wound healing traps bacteria from the cat's mouth under the skin. Over a few days, the bacteria can multiply and result in an abscess, cellulitis (infection within the tissues), septic arthritis (infection in a joint), osteomyelitis (infection of the bone) or pyothorax (infection within the chest cavity). An abscess is a pocket of pus, which is an accumulation of infection-fighting cells, bacteria and body fluid. If the abscess opens, you can see a foul-smelling discharge. Your cat may lick at the site causing hair loss. If the abscess does not open (closed abscess), your cat may have a fever, have a loss of appetite, become limp, act depressed or painful. There is usually visible swelling at the area of the abscess, and your cat probably won't want that area to be touched. The most common bites occur around the neck, face, legs, and tail.
If you think or know your cat may have been bitten, you should schedule a visit with your veterinarian. Instead of waiting for an abscess to develop, it is better to have the wound assessed and start antibiotic therapy. Sometimes you don't know if your cat was bitten until an abscess has formed. If your cat presents with a closed abscess, your veterinarian may need to sedate your cat, lance the abscess to allow the infected discharge to drain out, thoroughly flush the wound, and prescribe antibiotics and pain medications if needed. Open and draining abscesses still benefit from having the wound clipped, cleaned, flushed and treated with antibiotics.
Besides bite wound infections and abscesses, there are other problems that can come along with cat fights. According to the North Carolina Department of Public Health, cats are the domestic animals most commonly infected with rabies, both in North Carolina and across the United States. Cats may prey on wildlife that is infected with rabies. The risk is higher for unsupervised cats that live outside. If your cat has been bitten by an animal with a high risk of being infected with rabies, North Carolina State Law requires your cat to have a rabies vaccine booster within 72 hours of a bite. North Carolina State Law requires all cats and dogs to be vaccinated for rabies starting at 4 months old and maintain a current up-to-date rabies status through the rest of their life.
Rabies is the most serious and fatal disease that is transmitted through saliva and bite wounds, but bite wounds are considered to be the main route of transmission of some other important feline infections, most notably Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) and Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV). Blood tests should be performed at least 6-8 weeks after any bite wounds to diagnose FIV and Leukemia infections. We highly recommend vaccinating for FeLV if your cat goes outside, tends to escape, or comes in contact with other cats through screens or windows. While there is a vaccine for FIV, it is not currently recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Keeping FIV and FeLV positive cats indoors also helps to prevent transmission.
You can minimize the risk of your cat being in a fight by spaying or neutering. This will help decrease the territorial behavior but it will not completely eliminate fighting. For primarily indoor cats, arrange separate living areas with plenty of resources for housemates who have a history of fighting. In a multi-cat household, this means having more than enough litter boxes, food/water bowls, beds and sleeping areas to give your cats lots of choice and space to help to preserve a harmonious atmosphere. If possible, keep your cat inside or in a cat enclosure, supervise them while they are outside, or limit outdoor activity - particularly at night when cat fights are most common, to reduce the number of bites your cat sustains. It's also a good idea to discourage other cats and wildlife from coming into your backyard. Try not to leave food outside that will attract other neighborhood cats.