If you’ve ever been bitten by a cat, you know it’s not a pleasant experience. Not only is the initial bite painful, but the infection that’s almost sure to follow no matter how well you clean it is sure to turn your vision red from the restraint it takes not to scream.
Science is finally catching up to what every cat-bite victim has ever known: Cat bites are dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that a recent study confirms that one out of every three people who suffer a cat bite end up hospitalized because of it.
The study, published in the February 2014 issue of The Journal of Hand Surgery, was conducted over a period of three years and involved analyzing the records of patients at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Out of 193 patients suffering from cat bites, 57 were hospitalized because of their injuries (for an average of three days), 38 needed surgery to correct the damage caused and eight cat bite victims needed more than one surgery after their injury.
Cats’ mouths have nearly the same amount of bacteria as dogs’ mouths do, so why are cat bites more dangerous? It’s all in the shape of the critter’s teeth. Dog teeth tend to be more blunt than cat teeth. The pressure of the bite is spread out over a greater surface area and doesn’t penetrate as deeply. Cats have sharper teeth for tearing apart their prey, and those very same teeth can penetrate deeply through skin, tendons and muscles and cause the bacteria present in their mouths to reach deeper into the body, making it harder to clean the wound thoroughly and necessitating antibiotics in many cases.
So what can you do to avoid complications from a cat bite? First, wash the area thoroughly with soap and water, as recommended by the Mayo Clinic. If the bite barely broke skin, apply an antibiotic cream to the area and cover it with a bandage. For more serious bites that penetrate deeper, the same advice applies unless the wound is bleeding profusely. If your cat bite is bleeding or torn, wash the area and apply a clean, dry cloth to staunch the bleeding and head to your doctor’s office.
Not all cat bites get infected. Signs of infection include a foul smell, redness, swelling, oozing of pus or liquid from the wound and increased pain (as if cat bites weren’t painful enough in their own right!). If you suspect your cat bite is infected, seek medical attention immediately. Infection can lead to the complications listed above, including temporary or permanent loss of mobility in the affected hand and the need for surgery — cat bites are nothing to play around with! The first line of defense against an infected wound is a round of oral antibiotics. Keep in touch with your doctor so he or she can monitor your progress and see if more aggressive treatment is needed.
Many, but not all, cat bites can be prevented by watching your cat’s body language. A rapidly twitching tail and puffed up fur are signs that your cat is feeling uncomfortable by your advances. If the cat is unfamiliar to you, avoid petting it as you would a cat you know. Instead, hold out your hooked finger for the cat to sniff and nudge at his own pace. Even better, hold out a blunt inanimate object such as a capped pen to allow the cat to get close and familiar with you. Proceed with caution and pull back if the cat shows signs of fear or agitation.
Along with the complications from the initial injury come the fear of rabies and tetanus. Rabies is always a risk when you don’t know the immunological status of the animal who bit you. And since it’s fatal once symptoms begin to show, you need to see your doctor and begin a series of rabies prophylaxis shots immediately after being bitten by an un-immunized animal or an animal whose immunization status is unknown.
Like rabies, there is no cure for tetanus, and if you haven’t received a booster shot in he past 10 years, it’s recommended you do so after being bitten by a cat. While cats don’t carry tetanus directly, it’s a bacterium found in the soil. There’s a greater need for a tetanus shot if the cat that bit you is an outdoor or indoor/outdoor cat.
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About Caitlin Seida: Owned by three cats and two dogs, she never met an animal she didn’t like. A Jill-of-All-Trades, she splits her workday as a writer, humane society advocate and on-call vet tech. What little free time she has goes into pinup modeling, advocating for self-acceptance, knitting and trying to maintain her haunted house (really!).