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An abscess is an accumulation or build-up of pus. It commonly occurs in the skin of animals but can be seen in all organs of the body.
Abscess is a septic process caused by bacteria. It can also be associated with a foreign body (such as a grass seed) which enters the body and causes a foreign body reaction as well as acting as a source of bacteria. In an effort to minimise the spread of the infection, the body mounts an immune response and increases its production of white blood cells (more specifically neutrophils), which are the cells responsible for fighting infection. These cells accumulate at the site of infection and are what makes up the bulk of the purulent material (pus) in an abscess.
The body may then attempt to wall off the infection/foreign body within a capsule of fibrous tissue, forming a true abscess. This 'walling off' is a form of defence that the body puts into place to prevent animals from developing sepsis and becoming systemically unwell from the infection. However, often animals do become quite unwell when they develop an abscess and often become lethargic and feverish.
Ordinarily abscesses are noticed by owners as an unusual, painful lump in the skin or even a discharging, pus-filled sinus. There is little variation in abscesses between species. An abscess on a dog is the same as an abscess on a cat -- a pus-filled pocket. The causes vary slightly with cats as they experience abscesses at a much higher frequency than dogs. This is due to the fact that cats will often fight one another at night and their teeth and nails are vats for infection.
Often animals won't show any signs of generalised illness with an abscess and the symptoms will be locally confined to the area of the abscess (swelling, discharging sinus, and pain). However, occasionally your pet will become quite unwell and this occurs if the infection becomes more systemic and they develop bacteraemia.
Localised Swelling (large fluctuant lumps)
Localised Functional and Structural Impairment (of particular significance when localised around the head, airways)
There are many diseases that can cause localised swelling and discomfort. Often if your Veterinarian hasn’t already diagnosed the abscess on clinical symptoms alone, they may suggest performing a ‘fine needle aspirate’. This generally involves taking a sample of the lump through a needle. The sample is then examined under a microscope. If the sample looks like pus and your Vet visualizes inflammatory cells and bacteria under the microscope, then a diagnosis is made of an abscess.
Sometimes, your veterinarian may suggest the sample is sent to an external laboratory for further tests. The tests that may be requested include:
Culture and sensitivity tests – Used to determine the type of bacteria causing the abscess and the antibiotics which are effective against this bacteria
Cytology – Used to determine the underlying cause of the infection
As you have probably already guessed, Vets will commonly use antibiotics when treating abscesses. However, the use of antibiotics alone will not treat an abscess. Antibiotics are given by injection or orally and delivered via the bloodstream to the edge of the abscess. However, often they fail to penetrate through the abscess wall and won’t completely fix the problem. Also, if there is a foreign body in the abscess (ie grass seed) and it is not completely removed from the body, it may end up causing recurrent infections.
The most important step in treating an abscess is to ensure the purulent material (pus) in the abscess is drained and left open to allow further drainage. It is also important to remove any foreign body that may be in the abscess. The location and size of the abscess will determine the appropriate level of therapeutic intervention to achieve these treatment goals. Some abscesses are lanced and drained during the consultation under a light sedation or local anaesthetic while others may require a general anaesthetic (due to more extensive surgery required and usually because drains need to be placed). Once drained your pet is ordinarily sent home on pain relief and antibiotics with instructions on managing the wound and drain removal given to you by your Veterinarian.
Abscesses are walled-off areas of pus due to infections ordinarily developing under the skin. They can affect all species of animals and most areas of the body and are treated with surgical drainage and antibiotics.