Facial Swelling In Cats

Updated July 24, 2021

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. Read about fight wounds on tails here.

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.

cat abscess hole size

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.

The picture above shows an abscess-related skin defect seen at Walkerville Vet in 2021. Although very large, it was still (just) able to be surgically closed.

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.


42 Replies to “Facial Swelling In Cats”

  1. Hi Andrew.
    My cat is on her 5th visit to the vets for what started out as a swollen cheek and sore eye (they said it was conjunctivitis). The first course of antibiotics didn’t reduce the swelling, but the second course (different antibiotics) reduced most of the swelling. However, the swelling came back and spread to half her face and she now cannot close the eye on the affected side. The vet said it’s not an abscess as she cannot extract any fluid from any part of her head and nothing has shown up on an x-ray. She said it may be that something is blocked and backing up the system, but can’t be sure and the only way to have a chance of exploring this would to be referred for a CT or MRI – but she said this would probably be E1,000+, which I can’t afford. My cat is on intravenous antibiotics (no real noticeable change) and will be switching to steroids tomorrow as a last chance. But if this doesn’t work, she will have to put my cat to sleep.
    At 7 years old, she’s been a very healthy cat up to now and I’m devastated that I might lose her, especially when I don’t know why.
    Would you have any suggestions as to anything else we could check for please?

    1. Hi Evelyn. Another test you could consider is a biopsy. This would cost less and pick up unusual types of infection or tumour that would also be difficult to diagnose via CT. If you do this it’s best done before starting corticosteroids.

    1. Hi Jasmine. If it just appeared it’s almost certainly an abscess, and does cause pain- it’s just that he’s not showing you. Get it checked out as soon as you can.

  2. I feel sad after reading this. This happened with my cat and I went to the vet immediately but they told me I have to put him down for his own good. After hand I realised I never got a proper explanation what and why from the vet. Perhaps he could have been saved and I went to a bad vet… I feel like a bad owner…

  3. Very straightforward and informative. My cat’s face was swollen right next to his nose. The vet gave me antibiotics to give him. They started working immediately and once I finished the course, there was no sign of the swelling. But now, days later he suddenly looks like he’s holding a marble in his cheek. Same side of face – just different location, he is always picking a fight with my mature female cat. Do you think this is an abcess? Going to take in to the vet once they are open in the morning,

    1. Hi Sharon. Yes, this happens sometimes. If the infection had got going a little way before the antibiotic it will still localise into a small abscess. You certainly prevented a much bigger one but it will probably need lancing regardless.

  4. Hi Andrew, my 13 yr old cat came in the house the other day and the left side of her jaw was swollen. It is now double the size and kind of hard. She doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of snake bite or much pain. There is a slight cut her gum as well, I think it might be from her own tooth. I’m not sure but please help.

    1. This is an example of the sort of comment I don’t normally approve, as it’s clear that your cat should receive treatment as soon as possible. This information can also be found in the article.

  5. My baby Maple, got into an altercation with another cat while I was hanging the washing out ( some comes and stretches her legs) another cat came and attacked her around 7pm tonight. Now she was a small cut on her head and what looks like swelling in the nose area? She is also refusing to eat and drink. I really thinking she needs a visit to the clinic?

  6. Thank you so much for your article! My cat started with a small bump on his jawline and two days later it was quiet large. He didn’t seem to have pain when I touched it but after reading your article I took him to the vet. It was an abscess! Thanks to you, baby boy is on the mend! Appreciate your work!

  7. Hello! I recently discovered a cat living under my house. Apparently my mom had heard him for about week before we actually saw him. We finally got him to come out. Beautiful cat. He was very VERY friendly to us. But we noticed while we were petting him. He has two lumps on both cheeks. I pressed down on them and they are both rock solid. Like very solid. I didn’t get the chance to see if there was any bite marks anywhere. But he didn’t seem to mind us touching him there at all. I checked his body for any other wounds. But everything was perfectly fine excellent for his face. Where he had the two lumps and also red splotches on the skin. Only on the face though. We can’t really afford a vet right now. What do you suggest we do?

    1. Hi Yoonie. What you are noticing are almost certainly the wide cheeks of a normal adult male tomcat. They look weird because you don’t see them in desexed or neutered animals. It would do him a great favour to get him done as well and then bring him inside.

  8. Hi, my 17 yr old cat is not friendly, it looks like an abscess on his left side cheek & it’s starting to effect his eye. Will a vet see him if he is wild? On Halloween someone tried to sacraficed him but we found him in time to save him. So he highly mistrusts humans.

    1. Hi Alma. The answer to your question depends on the vet. I can say that personally there is no cat too wild for me to see, but just check before you go in.

  9. Hi, this has happened to my cat! Cat fight, small bump, it didn’t bother him. It started to grow, took him to the vet, did needle biopsy, no cancer so it was recommended to leave it alone. Since then it grew, saw vet, still no diagnosis but booked surgery for removal. Unfortunately there was a long wait for surgery, now it has busted through his face, saw vet again. Now vet says although they did a second biopsy and no cancers cells, just inflamed tissue, he believes it cancer and also does not want to do surgery as he believes there is not enough skin available to repair the wound. I’m horrified, I don’t want to lose my cat but I don’t want to keep a e-collar on him for the rest of his life, without surgery that’s what I will have to do as he keeps scratching it and tearing it open. Any recommendations? Thank you, sherry

    1. Hi Sherry. I just posted a picture on the page which is a diagram of the size of a facial defect (caused by an abscess) we recently closed without major problems. It’s perfectly reasonable for a vet to decline surgery if they don’t feel it’s in their skill set. Therefore, if your vet is not comfortable operating on a defect of a similar or smaller size, make some phone calls and see who else can.

      1. Thank you so very much for the information. I have a referral to another veterinary surgeon, I am hoping that he will perform the surgery. I will definitely be bringing your reply with me, if he doesn’t want to do the surgery hopefully I can convince him to place the drain and close the wound, as prior to receiving your reply the only option I was given other than surgery was to put my cat down, at least now I have hope that there is another option. Again, thank you, I now have some hope that I may get more time with my furry friend. Warmest regards, Sherry

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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!

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

      2. I have a 4 yr old male cat. He is the only pet we have and lives only indoors. He bonded with me so strongly after he was born, that my friend told me that he chose me, and promptly gifted him to me once he was weaned. He is an indoor only kitty and very well cared for. We use only vet recommended food for him, and he gets a small amount of cooked chicken livers as a treat that I make myself when we humans eat a whole chicken from the natural foods market.

        He has since 7 months old, gotten random swelling in his feet, face and ears. It will cause a foot or all four feet to swell, an ear, an eye, his nose, or a cheek, sometimes his chin or under his jaw. It is so randnom, it will go away for a while and then come back a such a random time. This time, he started getting a paw, then three paws, they went down and a day later his eye, it went away that night and next morning his ear, again returned to normal, then his cheek and jaw. And again normal. The first time I took him to a vet, they charged me 2,000 to call it pododermatitis and charged me even more for an antibiotic and lycene. The second time, same thing. Pododermatitis does not explain it! We can’t afford the vet again, and have tried several with the same results. It has been two weeks now and he is still getting random swelling. He is otherwise a healthy affectionate cat. Slight fever off and on, and only didn’t eat as much one day a week in, and another 9 days in, now just his normal apatite aside from begging for liver. Please help me figure this out.

      3. Hi Lissy. For the money you mentioned, it’s likely that a lot of tests have been done, and I assume they were negative to come to the conclusion of pododermatitis. I agree that it’s not a good fit because the swelling is occurring elsewhere on the body but it does sound like an immunologic reaction. I’m assuming that the condition does not respond to prednisolone? Sometimes it’s reasonable to treat symptomatically if the testing has been unhelpful, that is as long as it works. I have never seen anything like this, and I suggest that for a diagnosis you’ll probably need a specialist veterinary dermatologist.

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