Generally speaking, a cat who lives entirely indoors is much safer than one who spends time outside and can get hit by a car or injured or killed by another animal. The exception is a house cat’s risk for burns. Says Tufts emergency and clinical care veterinarian Elizabeth Rozanski, DVM, “indoor cats are at the greatest risk of suffering serious and potentially life-threatening burns.”
The three major burn categories
A burn can be one of three different types:
Thermal burns. These are the most common type of burn to affect cats. They result from direct contact with flames, steam, hot liquids, or hot objects including heating pads, hair dryers, and heat lamps. Thermal burns are usually caused by a household accident, most commonly one that occurs in the kitchen. A cat can be scalded, for example, by water that “spits up” from a boiling kettle or by grease spattered from a sizzling hot frying pan.
Chemical burns. These are the second most common type of burn to harm house cats. They occur when a cat’s skin comes in contact with a caustic substance such as turpentine, lye, or a harsh household cleaning agent. The longer such chemicals remain on a cat’s skin, the more serious the burn. And if she attempts to groom the irritating chemical from her fur, she can suffer collateral burns on her tongue and elsewhere in her oral cavity or even down her throat into the esophagus.
Electrical burns. These burns are the least frequently seen in veterinary emergency rooms. They can occur when a cat chews through a live electrical cord or comes in contact with an inadequately insulated appliance. Such burns usually affect the top of a cat’s tongue or the inside of her mouth. More threatening than the burn itself is the electrical shock that may occur, which can result in cardiac arrest.
If your cat suffers a burn
If your cat gets a thermal burn:
- Do not put ice on it. That can cause additional tissue damage.
- Do not apply cold water. It can make her very cold, even potentially causing her to start shivering.
- Do not apply butter or any other kind of ointment. Thermal burns usually have some degree of oozing associated with them, and any ointment can actually drive the ooze in deeper and make things worse.
- Do not clean or bandage the burned area. Those well-meaning gestures can actually exacerbate the situation by introducing infection or perpetuating tissue damage.
- Do bring your cat to the veterinarian right away. “If it’s a small burn and the cat isn’t limping, it will probably heal on its own within a week,” Dr. Rozanski says. “But a burn might be worse than it looks, which is why it should be examined by a doctor.”
If your cat has suffered a chemical or electrical burn:
Gently put her in a towel or blanket, place her in her carrier, and go immediately to the nearest animal hospital. Those kinds of burns always need a professional assessment and treatment.
How the cat will come through the trauma depends on the depth of the burn and the tissue affected.
First-degree burns are relatively superficial, primarily affecting only the protective outer layer of a cat’s skin (epidermis). They may be moist, swollen, and painful, or at least sensitive to touch, but they should heal well.
Second-degree burns affect not only the epidermis but also the dermis — the sensitive connective tissue lying beneath the outer layer of skin. These lesions are typically swollen, blistered and — because the dermis contains nerve endings — likely to be extremely painful when touched. But again, a cat will tend to come through second-degree burns without permanent damage — although she may need to be treated with antibiotics for a secondary infection that could take hold.
Third-degree burns are the most serious, involving all layers of the skin as well as underlying tissues. But even in these cases, if the traumatized area involves less than one-third of a cat’s body, the animal has a good chance of surviving if she undergoes immediate treatment, including surgery to remove dead tissue.