By Maura McAndrew
A cat’s tail is often inextricable from his personality, whether it is curled peacefully around him in repose or flicking impatiently as he waits for food. “A cat's tail has multiple functions,” says Teri Skadron, doctor of veterinary medicine at Skadron Animal Hospital in West St. Paul, Minnesota. She notes that tails are used for balance, communication, to keep warm, and for self-expression.
Because of these reasons, it’s important for pet owners to keep their cats’ tails free from injuries and infections. Thankfully, says Heather DiGiacomo, veterinarian and owner of Newtown Square Veterinary Hospital in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, tail injuries are relatively uncommon in cats. “Outdoor cats are more at risk,” she says, “so keeping cats indoors can dramatically reduce the incidence of tail injuries.”
If you can’t keep Felix from exploring the outdoors, it’s useful to be aware of the dangers. With the help of our experts, we’ve compiled a list of common cat tail injuries so you can best prevent and treat them, and keep that expressive appendage in optimal health.
DiGiacomo explains that bite wounds are one of the most common cat tail injuries seen in her practice. “Presumably this happens when the cat is running away and the other animal latches on to the tail,” DiGiacomo explains. Even if the bite wound is small and can heal on its own, Skadron emphasizes that more serious problems can arise. “It is important to make sure the wound doesn't get infected,” she says. “Signs of infection include redness, heat, pain and inflammation.”
To minimize the risk of infection, it’s best to have a cat with a significant bite wound treated by a veterinarian. DiGiacomo explains that vets will often sedate a cat with a serious wound in order to “flush” the area completely. The cat will then likely be prescribed antibiotics and possibly pain medication. Depending on the situation, Skadron adds that pet owners may have to clean the tail at home to prevent infection. Outdoor cats should be kept indoors while healing, to prevent fly larvae from growing in wounds.
Given the high risk of cat fights between outdoor cats, it’s also important to keep your pet’s rabies vaccinations current.
If your cat has a simple abrasion, whether it’s a scratch or small cut, this is one case where it’s probably okay to keep your cat at home and monitor her healing. “For minor abrasions or wounds, owners can use hydrogen peroxide to keep the tail clean,” Skadron says. Be as gentle as possible while cleaning, and use a clean cloth or gauze. If it isn’t too severe, the wound will likely heal in time with minimal treatment.
However, “it is important to watch for any signs of infection,” Skadron notes, “or if the cat holds or moves the tail differently.” This behavior can indicate a more serious injury and is a worth getting checked out by a professional.
While some skin infections result from the aforementioned types of trauma, like an untreated wound from an animal bite, the most common causes are flea bites or allergic reactions. Whatever the cause, if the skin becomes inflamed, red, and itchy, it’s best to consult your vet about treatment.
“Cats with flea dermatitis require treatment for the fleas to eliminate the primary inciting cause,” DiGiacomo says. “Many of these kitties will also need steroids to help reduce their severe itching and sometimes antibiotics if they have a secondary skin infection.” Keeping pets on year-round flea prevention medication can prevent this problem in cats.
And while you may be inclined to treat your cat’s skin infection at home with over-the-counter ointments, DiGiacomo advises against it. “Topical medications such as antibiotic creams and ointments should be avoided in cats, as most cats will lick and ingest the topical medication,” she warns.
Fracture or Dislocation
Fractures and dislocations of the tail are often seen with trauma, such as getting hit by a car or getting the tail inadvertently stuck in a door, says Skadron. Sometimes symptoms—such as a drooping tail—make this type of injury easy to spot. But these injuries are not as obvious as something like bite wounds, so a veterinarian may need to perform an x-ray to discover a fracture or dislocation.
While minor tail fractures can often heal on their own, more serious injuries might require amputation, Skadron says. While this may sound scary, she notes that most cats “do just fine” after surgery and that they’re able to adapt and function surprisingly well without a tail.
Although not as common as other injuries, your cat may experience a degloving injury if he or she is hit or dragged by a car. Degloving is when “an extensive amount of skin is torn away from the underlying tissue on the tail,” Skadron explains. These injuries can be very serious, and require immediate treatment by a veterinarian. According to an article on treating degloving injuries from the peer-reviewed journal Clinician’s Brief, skin, tissue, muscle, and even bone can be torn away by friction, and debris and bacteria can be embedded in the wound, causing infection.
Due to these factors, degloving injuries in cats usually require surgery. “The treatment for a degloving injury is usually amputation of the tail to the point where there is normal tissue,” Skadron says.
“Fan Belt” Injuries
“I’ve also seen a number of cats with what we call ‘fan belt’ injuries,” DiGiacomo says. “This happens in cold weather when a cat seeks out the warmth of a recently parked car engine. When the car is re-started, the tail can be trapped and pulled into the running car engine.” This type of injury can cause paralysis of the tail and nerve damage. And even more concerning, “this can sometimes injure the nerves that supply the bladder, so the cat may be unable to urinate,” DiGiacomo explains.
The usual treatment for fan belt injuries is tail amputation. It’s crucial to seek immediate veterinary care, especially if your cat is unable to urinate. While tail amputation can be effective in restoring a cat’s bladder function, fan belt injuries sometimes do irreparable damage and may even lead to death.
Self-Mutilation of the Tail
Some cat tail injuries are also the result of self-mutilation. Flea allergies, food allergies, and stress may contribute to this type of injury, says DiGiacomo. “But less commonly, self mutilation of the tail may be caused by a condition called feline hyperesthesia syndrome,” she says.
Feline hyperesthesia syndrome, DiGiacomo explains, is a “poorly understood condition where cats exhibit twitching or ‘rolling’ of the skin and fur along the spine.” This can cause the cat extreme discomfort, which may prompt him or her to “severely self-traumatize the skin.” Veterinarians will often treat this condition with gabapentin, she says, a pain relief medication also used to treat seizures.
Self-mutilation related to simple skin irritation can be treated the same way as a skin infection, with antibiotics and occasionally steroids prescribed by a veterinarian. And with any kind of self-mutilation, you may have to employ the trusty “cone of shame” as well: “Sometimes an Elizabethan collar [is required] to prevent self-trauma until the skin heals,” DiGiacomo says.