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Chunky, squishy, and oh-so-pinchable, there’s nothing cuter than cat cheeks. Some breeds, like the Siamese, have lean faces while others, like the British shorthair, have rounder facial features. But sometimes you’ll see a cat with impossibly huge cheeks—these are called “tomcat cheeks.”
Characterized by their almost swollen appearance, these chubby cat cheeks are commonly seen on unneutered males. But what causes these pumped-up cheeks, anyway?
Why Do Tomcats Have Large Cheeks?
To put it simply: testosterone. Chubby cheeks are specific to unneutered male cats, but it’s important to know that not all unneutered males develop these swollen cheeks. The impressive jowls are also not fat, but rather thickened skin.
According to Best Friends, a nonprofit that partners with animal welfare groups across the US, testosterone levels alone won’t make a cat’s cheeks ultra-chunky. But that testosterone does cause males to roam and get into fights—and this behavior can make a cat’s cheeks grow.
“[The cheeks] increase in size mostly due to fighting, when the body develops scar tissue,” says Melissa Lesinsky, board member, co-founder, and medical and adoption coordinator at Southern Arizona Cat Rescue. “The large jowls also provide protection to their face, eyes , and neck during fights with other males.”
Could Something Else Be Causing My Cat’s Swollen Face?
Testosterone levels and fighting aren’t the only factors that can cause a cat’s cheeks to become swollen. If your neutered, indoor house cat suddenly has swelling in the face, it could instead be tied to various other health conditions, including:
Abscesses: Abscesses can form due to tooth rot or bite wounds and scratches from other cats, Lesinsky says. Signs of an abscess swelling include a fever, and redness.
Dental disease: Feline dental diseases, including gingivitis and periodontal disease, can cause redness, swelling, inflamed teeth, difficulty eating, bad breath, and drooling.
insect stings: If a bee gets into your catio, your cat might get stung. Monitor kitty for behaviors including pawing at their face and crying out. Cats can sometimes have allergic reactions to insect stings and bites, including at the sting site.
Tumors: Oral cavity cancer is one of the most diagnosed forms of feline cancer and can cause tumours. Symptoms include facial swelling, drooling, bad breath, difficulty swallowing, red and swollen gums, and weight loss.
These conditions can be painful for your kitty. If you notice any abnormal swelling or puffiness, it’s important to contact your veterinarian for an appointment as soon as you can.
RELATED: Could Your Cat Have Cancer? Here’s How to Tell
At What Age Do Male Cats’ Cheeks Start Getting Big?
Lesinsky says a cat will start developing his tough cheek skin when he reaches sexual maturity. According to VCA Animal Hospitals, most cats reach sexual maturity when they’re around 6 months old, though this can vary depending on the time of year.
What to Do If You Find a Chubby-Cheeked Cat Outdoors
If you’re enjoying a warm spring day on your porch and suddenly a cat with swollen cheeks walks across your yard, he’s probably a roaming (and unneutered!) male. And he shouldn’t be ignored.
Trap-Neuter-Release, or TNR, should be your go-to plan, Lesinsky says. This practice involves humanely trapping the cat and getting him neutered. If the cat is feral and clearly uncomfortable around humans, release him back where you found him. If he’s friendly, Lesinsky says to take him to a shelter or rescue that can find him a forever home.
TNR can mean the difference between a long, healthy life and death for big-cheeked cats. Unneutered, free-roaming male cats live an average of less than two years, according to the Spay-Neuter Assistance Program (SNAP). Getting a stray fixed also helps with overpopulation. Female cats can produce an average of three litters each year, according to SNAP, and the average number of kittens per litter is four to six.
“Neutering has many health benefits,” Lesinsky says. “In my years, I’ve met so many big tomcats that have huge jowls who became the biggest teddy bears once moved indoors.”