Your cat recently came home after having surgery. It is now up to you to make sure the incision heals properly. But how can you tell if the redness and swelling are part of a normal healing process or signs of trouble?
Any breakdown of the skin, including wounds, lacerations and incisions, stimulate the body's immune system. From the moment the skin is affected, the body attempts to close the wound and heal the break in the skin. This immune response results in the mobilization of white blood cells, inflammatory cells and protein to the site of injury. Initially, the skin swells and reddens and may even show signs of bruising. Over time, the repair cells and proteins diminish and a scar is formed. In the normal, healthy cat, properly healing, non-infected incisions typically heal within 10-14 days and a permanent scar forms within about 14-21 days.
During the healing phase, it is imperative that you do not allow your cat to lick or chew at the incision. Tongues and mouths are full of bacteria and will only result in slowing healing and may even cause an infection.
Infections, excess inflammation, an overwhelming immune system response to the incision, or a poorly functioning immune system can all result in poor healing or incision breakdown. Knowing how to detect a problem early is crucial in helping your cat heal.
Within the first few days after surgery, the edges of the incision will normally swell and become red. The wound may look bruised and may have minor blood tinged fluid seepage. The edges of the wound will not be healed together and a slight gap between the edges is acceptable. Signs of trouble include excessive drainage, such as dripping when your cat is standing, bleeding from the wound or missing sutures. A wide gap, usually over ¼ inch, can indicate trouble. Any tissue that is protruding is a sign to contact your veterinarian right away.
After the first few days, the redness and bruising associated with an incision will diminish. Scabs may form over the incision site and around the sutures (stitches), but the incision should not be painful to the touch. Active cats may develop a large, firm swelling around the incision. This is usually caused by an overactive immune system in response to excess movement and activity by the cat. These firm swellings are not painful. If you notice excess redness, bleeding, pain when the incision is touched, sutures missing, wide gaps in the incision or any tissue protruding, contact your veterinarian. Any foul odor or discharge should also alert you to contact your veterinarian. Infection is one of the most common complications associated with incisions. Early detection and treatment can usually solve the problem before it worsens.
After the first week, most incisions are healed enough to allow the skin sutures or staples to be removed. The edges of the incision are typically sealed together; there is no discharge and no pain associated with the incision; and the redness should be gone. At this stage, your worries are pretty much over. If redness persists, however, or redness and swelling are seen around each suture, tissue is protruding, the wound is draining or there is a gap between the edges of the incision, contact your veterinarian.
With proper home care and close monitoring, your cat's incision will likely heal without complications.