Facial Swelling In Cats

Updated November 28, 2020

There’s just one common cause of a lump on a cat’s face. Have a look at the picture above. I hope you can see that the left cheek isn’t chubby, it’s swollen. This is an abscess and it needs veterinary attention.

What Is An Abscess?

An abscess is a localised pocket of infection that feels like a fluid-filled bump. It can occur anywhere on (or in) the body. In cats an abscess is most often found on the head, especially the cheek or jaw.

An abscess happens when infection gets under the skin and can’t drain away. Abscesses are almost always the result of a cat fight, but can also be caused by another animal, a grass seed or even a tooth root.

When two evenly-matched cats get into a fight, most injuries happen around the head for obvious reasons. An abscess on the back or rump might instead happen to a poor kitty who’s just trying to get away.

What Else Could It Be?

An abscess is the only common explanation for a large lump that comes up quickly on a cat, especially if it’s sore to touch. However, other possible explanations include:

For it to be an abscess, the cat also should have had contact with other cats. You’ll see why in a minute.

Why Cats Get Abscesses

Cat fight abscesses are a direct result of three special features of cats:

  1. Anaerobic bacteria found in the saliva of cats that tend to form abscesses
  2. Needle-shaped teeth and claws, perfect for injecting these bacteria under the skin
  3. The tendency for fighting between cats who don’t live together

Once bacteria get introduced, they rapidly spread in the low oxygen environment. The first sign is a hot, swollen and sore area we call cellulitis. This stage is usually missed unless it happens on a leg, where the swelling and pain are easy to see.

If your cat is lucky enough, cellulitis can be cured just with a course of antibiotics. That’s why it’s always a great idea to get a sore or limping cat to the vet straight away.

The formation of pus changes everything. Now the body literally starts building a wall around the infection that will eventually become the abscess capsule. At this point, antibiotics are helpful, but can no longer bring about a cure.

It’s time for surgery.

Treatment Of Abscesses

Once pus starts to appear, it’s like a foreign object. Antibiotics won’t penetrate and the body can’t easily remove it. If we don’t get it out it will find its own way to the surface. That’s not good.

The ‘natural’ thing an abscess does is for the skin on top to die and then to rupture. However, you should never let this happen. Here’s why:

  • The hole is large and very unpleasant
  • Healing is always slow
  • Some areas (especially legs) won’t heal at all
  • Skin loss on the face can be highly disfiguring

So instead we lance a small incision, then drain and flush the abscess. This is always done after sedation and pain control. And unless it’s very late, we’ll do it the same day you come in.

Then it’s just a matter of keeping the small cut clean and finishing a course of antibiotics. If tablets are too hard, there’s even a long acting injection. Healing should be routine and uneventful.

If the abscess burst before you found it, don’t be too alarmed. An abscess on the body will often heal just fine as long as it’s bathed and antibiotics are given. What comes out can be quite bloody, but that’s just what pus looks like in cats.

If there’s a large hole, most vets prefer to surgically close the hole and place a penrose drain. Once again, a neat result and fast healing.

Reasons To Be Careful

After all seems done and dusted, there’s still a reason to stay wary. Cat fights that lead to abscesses are probably the leading way for cats to catch feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV.

There’s no better prevention for both abscesses and FIV than being kept away from other cats. I sympathise with owners who feel their cats need to be outside. I’ve even done it myself. But my final word is this: bringing a cat indoors can make a happy cat even be happier with just a little effort.

Devon Rex sleeping
Did someone say effort?

Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.

Please note: While I’m happy to give advice where I can, comments intended to avoid seeing a vet will be deleted without reply. There is no other sensible alternative.


19 Replies to “Facial Swelling In Cats”

  1. i have a neighborhood cat i might adopt, its got a small lump on its right cheek and i am very worried. its smaller than 1cm i think? its not soft its kinda hard and she shows no reaction to me touching her there, no signs of pain or irritation or anything. she loves cheek scratches and so i scratch her ceek and realised there was something there. what can i do? im very worried and anxious im so scared it might be cancer. i saw her yesterday i cant be sure if the lump was there yesterday as i mostly brushed her and not scratch her but i dont think it was.

    please give me advice i am very concerned.

    1. Hi KK. The lump is very unlikely to be either cancer or an abscess. I suspect it will be a crust or scar from an old fight injury, but you won’t know more until you can get close and possibly clip off the hair.

  2. Hi, I live on an island that has no vet. I have three indoor only cats, my male bi color fights with the other two. He is 3.5 years old and neutered. Last night he developed a 2cm round lump on his lower right jaw. It is the same size this morning. I did not see any scratches there from the other cats, but I could have missed it. I believe it to be an abscess, but have no way of knowing for sure. Is there anything I can do for him, without access to a vet? Thank you.

    1. Hi Kendra. I’m sorry I can’t give you advice like that, as it will be mis-used by people trying to avoid using a vet when they can. My advice is to talk to the vet you normally use about getting supplies to have available for times like these.

  3. Hi there,
    My cat sneaked out couple days ago. When she got back her side of her face was swollen after 2 days it went back down. Today the same side is swollen up again. She seem herself eating and drinking well. The lump dont bother her when I touch it, its a hard lump. I will be contacting my vets tommrow.

  4. Hi Andrew. Thanks for this informative article. We are one week post-op after an unexplained abscess in our 11-year-old Persian’s cheek. He’s strictly indoors only so no cat fights. The Vet that performed the surgery said his teeth “felt fine” – frustratingly they did not do xrays whilst he was under – and said the abscess is a mystery. Now it has to have been caused by something and we certainly don’t want a recurrence. Can it be caused by something else? Or must it be a tooth? We’re booked in to see a Veterinary Dentist in 3 weeks when he’s healed for a second opinion but in the meantime we’re worried it could happen again. Should we be worried. Thanks.

    1. Hi Elle. There is no easy way of telling what might have caused the abscess, but given that your cat does not go outside, a fight is almost out of the question. A tooth is a good thought so good luck with the specialist and please let me know how it went.

  5. I took my cat to the vet 2 weeks ago for the same lump on her cheek. Her eye was beginning to look smaller in that side as well. The vet lanced it and squeezed out the pus before giving her a shot of antibiotics. We initially saw a little improvement, but it seemed to have returned to the same size as before. She had xrays to rule out a dental abscess as well. Why do you think it’s retuned?

    1. Hi Marisa. Abscesses on the head are well known for coming back. The most likely explanation is that the site doesn’t always allow for effective drainage. Therefore, with a recurrence, looking for an underlying cause like a dental abscess is excellent thinking, and if there’s nothing found, we will usually insert a penrose drain for a few days.

  6. Our cat just came back from a night out with a lump on his right cheek, what can form right away? we have been away for 2 days and he had nothing before going out. Thanks!

  7. I just took my cat into the vet today with a quite large tender lump on the side his jaw/chin/throat that seemingly formed overnight. They gave him an antibiotic shot and anti inflammation meds. Should they have lanced the lump? I asked about this and they said they didn’t need to. So what’s the lump full of? I’m afraid of a ruptured abscess that could cause more issues.

    1. Hi JR. It’s a good question. My guess is that the vets think that the lump is still cellulitis and has not started forming pus (this can take a day or two). I certainly would lance anything with a fluidy feel so if that happens, get back in touch with them.

  8. There is this stray kitten that I normally feed, He’s a gorgeous kitten. The only problem is now he have a lump on one side of his jaw … If anybody can help me it would mean a lot to me. He’ll let me pet him but only if I’m sitting down in a chair. He is a stray kitten and he’s pretty scared of everything… Help

      1. If the lump is soft and under the skin, then it’s most likely an abscess, Which is usually painful even if a cat doesn’t tell you. If the lump is on the surface of the skin and raised then think about a tumour. A lot depends on the age of your cat and whether they have access to outdoors as well.

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