Spotting Soft-Tissue Trauma

Muscle and skin injuries can be difficult to detect

Cats have 517 muscles, and they seem to find just as many creative ways to damage them. Whether it’s a leg caught in furniture, a fall, or getting shut in a door, cats prove every day that their incredible flexibility and athleticism is not enough to keep them out of trouble.

“From a traumatic standpoint, I would prioritize bite wounds with cats living outside but also sometimes in households with other pets. However, outdoor cats can experience other forms of trauma including being hit by cars that can damage soft tissue,” says Christopher W. Frye DVM, DACVSMR, CVA, assistant clinical professor and section chief of Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Bleeding that continues even when you apply pressure requires prompt veterinary care to control the bleeding, assess the damage, and treat accordingly.

Limping without other symptoms or a known traumatic event is not an emergency. You can wait to get an appointment during regular business hours. While you wait for your appointment, confine your cat to one room so he isn’t running around doing additional damage to the hurt leg.

“Some soft-tissue injuries are obvious and even emergent, such as hit-by-car accidents,” says Dr. Frye. “In those situations, an emergency visit to assess the extent of injury and stabilize the patient is important before addressing longer term wound-care management.”

Even if your cat walks off and seems fine after an accident, he should be examined by your veterinarian promptly. Internal injuries and internal bleeding can get dramatically worse over time, and your cat’s adrenaline may be masking some of his pain.

Potential soft-tissue injuries are an emergency if:

  • The cat has been hit by a car.
  • The cat has been attacked by a large animal or a person.
  • The cat is bleeding heavily.
  • The cat is unconscious.
  • The cat is lethargic or non-responsive.
  • The cat is having difficulty breathing.

Bite Wounds

Cats’ tiny, sharp teeth create deep puncture wounds that are frequently difficult to spot unless you know a fight took place. “With bite wounds, cats may not show obvious signs of soft tissue damage, but instead limp or act depressed and interact less,” says Dr. Frye. Bite wounds from a dog are generally easier to see, but in some cases may not be obvious until you closely examine your cat’s skin in the area where he seems to be sore.

“Often, the wounds are infected and can form an abscess over time that needs to be addressed by a veterinarian,” says Dr. Frye. “Many times, the abscess needs to be drained, cleaned, and explored to ensure the wounds are not extending further into other vital areas of the body, such as inside the abdomen. The patients often require antibiotics, wound care, and rabies vaccination boosters—another reason to always ensure pets are up to date on vaccines.”

Some bite wounds may require surgery, but often they heal on their own once any infection has been resolved.

Hit By Car

The first injury that most cat owners suspect when their cat is hit by a car is broken bones, but just because the x-rays don’t show any fractures doesn’t mean your kitty will be back to 100% tomorrow. The force of the impact will often bruise and damage muscles, even causing tears in muscles and ligaments.

One severe soft-tissue injury that can occur when a cat is hit by a car is brachial plexus avulsion. The brachial plexus is the network of nerves that works together to control your cat’s front legs. If his leg is violently wrenched away from his body, these nerves can become stretched or even severed from the spinal cord. When this happens, the cat will lose control of the affected front leg. He will drag that paw, be unable to bear weight on that leg, and be unable to feel sensations in part or all of the leg and paw. If the nerves have just been damaged, there is potential for recovery with physical therapy, but if the nerves have been completely avulsed (or severed), there is no treatment and the limb will likely need to be amputated.

Muscle Tears and Strains

Whether your cat is an athlete or a couch potato, sooner or later he will likely experience some sort of muscle injury. He might misjudge a leap and suffer a crash landing, or get a paw stuck in a drawer handle or chair rung while climbing.

In any of these cases (and many others), your cat will likely show that he has hurt himself by limping or flinching when touched in a particular part of his body. The lameness might be subtle or only apparent when he first gets up after a rest, or it might be persistent. In some cases, he may even refuse to bear weight on the injured leg. In rare cases, a cat with a muscle strain may cry out.

If you detect any indication of pain, bring the cat to the veterinarian to rule out serious injuries. Your veterinarian can also provide medications to aid healing and help curb pain.

What You Can Do

If you suspect your cat has a soft-tissue injury, you can:

  • Schedule a veterinary exam and let the staff determine whether your cat’s situation is an emergency.
  • Apply pressure to bleeding wounds with a clean cloth.
  • Ice injured limbs or areas for up to 15 minutes. Use an ice pack or frozen vegetable package to help to control pain and inflammation.
  • Restrict activity. Moving around a lot will put stress on the injury and could worsen it.