It’s not uncommon for our cats to get various lumps and bumps as they get older. One of the most common types of masses they can develop is called a sebaceous cyst. So how do you know if your cat has one and what can you do about it? Check out our tips below for what to do.
What Is a Sebaceous Cyst?
The term “sebaceous cyst” may sound scary, but, it’s not. Let’s start at the beginning and discuss what constitutes a cyst. According to Tammy Hunter, DVM and Debbie Stoewen DVM, MSW, RSW, PhD of VCA, cysts are “hollow spaces within tissues that contain either liquid or solidified materials; the contents may be made up of natural bodily secretions (e.g., sebum – the oily waxy substance secreted by the sebaceous glands – or sweat) or abnormal breakdown products such as dead cells or keratin.”1
What Do Sebaceous Cysts Look Like?
Sebaceous cysts are associated with the sebaceous glands surrounding hair follicles and are filled with sebum. While a common finding in dogs, they are uncommon in cats except for the condition known as “stud tail.”2 This condition affects intact, male cats on the upper side of the tail resulting in a buildup of hair, scaly skin, and crusting.
In layman’s terms, sebaceous cysts are nothing more than very large pimples.3 These cysts are enclosed bumps anywhere on the skin that are often whitish in color. They occur when a hair follicle is damaged or becomes clogged, causing the immune system to create a small pocket that fills with keratin. Sometimes, the mere filling of the pocket will cause the cyst to stop growing. Other times, the cyst will grow until it ruptures and fluid leaks out.
Diagnosing a Sebaceous Cyst
Ideally, this should be done by a licensed veterinarian. While a sebaceous cyst is benign, they can sometimes be indistinguishable from other more worrisome masses based on looks alone (e.g., cancerous masses).45 Therefore, your veterinarian may take a fine needle aspirate, a small sample of the mass to be looked at under the microscope and/or a biopsy of the mass.
Treating a Sebaceous Cyst
Sebaceous cysts can either be treated conservatively or aggressively.6 Most of the time, a sebaceous cyst won’t bother your pet in any way, shape, or form so benign neglect is often the treatment of choice. If the cyst remains the same size, your veterinarian will often elect to leave the cyst intact, especially considering that many cats are not comfortable being at the vet’s office.
Sometimes, your veterinarian will choose to drain the cyst, especially if the aspirate or biopsy results came back as non-cancerous. This involves placing a needle in the cyst and drawing the fluid out and the sample is looked at under a microscope. This usually does not require sedation in cooperative cats. In other cases, such as when the fluid inside is too thick to be drawn out with a needle, lancing the cyst is an option. In this case, your cat will most likely be sedated and a small, sharp blade will be used to make a tiny incision in the skin to allow the contents of the cyst to drain out. In order to allow the cyst’s contents to continue to drain, stitches are usually not necessary in this scenario.
Sometimes despite trying one of the aforementioned procedures, a cyst will continue to recur and grow. More involved surgical procedures are often necessary at this point where the veterinarian ensures that the hair follicle and cyst wall are completely removed. Your cat will need to be placed under general anesthesia for this procedure. Bloodwork may be performed ahead of time to ensure that anesthesia can be safely administered to your pet. Stitches will be placed to draw the skin back together over the area where the cyst was excised.
Special Care at Home
Many people ask if they can remove the sebaceous cyst or “pop” it at home. If the cyst were to rupture on its own, it’s perfectly fine to wipe away the material that comes out with a damp, clean cloth, and some mild soap. However, it is not recommended to drain the sebaceous cyst yourself at home because it may not be a sebaceous cyst at all. Draining a cyst at home can cause inflammation, infection, bleeding, and irritation for your cat.
Something you can do at home is to prevent your cat from licking, chewing, or otherwise traumatizing the area of the cyst. If your veterinarian has had to drain the cyst or remove it entirely, it is imperative to keep the area clean and dry. Any bleeding, swelling, oozing, loss of sutures, etc. should be reported to your veterinarian so they can take appropriate action.
When it comes to sebaceous cysts, simply taking care of your cat’s skin as directed by a veterinarian can help reduce the chances of one forming. Be sure to discuss the right type of shampoo and other skin/coat care items with your veterinarian as overbathing can be a problem. Regular brushing can also help with hair follicle health as well.
Whether treated conservatively or aggressively with surgery, the prognosis for your cat having a sebaceous cyst is generally excellent. Since they are benign masses, they are not expected to spread or grow quickly. Continue to monitor any cysts in regards to size, shape, and color and be sure to notify your veterinarian of any changes.
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- Hunter T, Stoewen D. Cysts. Vcahospitals.com. Accessed February 3, 2022.
- Paul M. Stud Tail in Cats. Pethealthnetwork.com. Accessed February 3, 2022.
- PetHealthNetwork. Sebaceous Cysts in Cats or Dogs. Pethealthnetwork.com. Accessed February 3, 2022.
- Barger A. Cytology of Lumps and Bumps: The Common Stuff. Vetmed.illinois.edu. Published November 10, 2021. Accessed February 3, 2022.
- Coates J. Lumps, Bumps, Cysts, and Growths on Cats. PetMD.com. Published September 29, 2017. Accessed February 3, 2022.
- Hollinger H. Sebaceous Cysts in Cats. Wagwalking.com. Published January 10, 2017. Updated January 13, 2022. Accessed February 3, 2022.