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Does Anyone Else Think the Danger of Cat Bites Has Been Exaggerated?

A report says one-third of people bitten by cats are hospitalized; here's why I think it's misleading.

 |  Mar 18th 2014  |   39 Contributions


Guess what, kiddies? It’s time for another round of our favorite game, Media Hysteria About How Awful Cats Are!

The latest installment started with an article in a medical journal stating that cat bites are so excruciatingly toxic that one in three people who get bitten by cats end up in the hospital. Naturally, every media outlet on the planet (okay, I’m exaggerating a bit here) picked this story up and ran with it: “OMG! Quick, everybody -- get rid of your cats before EVERYBODY DIES!!!!!”

Original photo and LOLcaption CC-BY-SA Niccolò Caranti

These findings were based on a grand total of 193 patients, over the course of three years, who went to the Mayo Clinic seeking treatment for cat bites. Of those people, 57 needed to go to the hospital for a few days and 38 needed surgery.

Okay, let’s back up and take a deep breath here: We’re talking about one hospital and 193 people over three years. This is not exactly a huge sample size, folks. Add to that the fact that people who go to the hospital for cat bites are, if my experience is in any way representative, a very small minority of those who actually get bitten by cats.

Yes, cat bites do pose dangers. Yes, there are bacteria in cat bites that can cause serious infection. But that’s the nature of puncture wounds in general. You can get tetanus just as easily from stepping on a rusty nail as you theoretically could from getting bitten by a cat. Why? Because puncture wounds trap bacteria and toxic crap inside them, resulting in the growth of bacteria that don’t need air to thrive.

Don't want to get bitten by a cat? Don't use your hands and feed as kitty toys! Photo CC-BY-ND by Kevin Bailey

Anaerobic bacterial infections of any kind are notoriously difficult to treat. Some well-known anaerobic infections are appendicitis, peritonitis, abscesses, sinusitis, and periodontitis. I’m willing to bet that lots more people, both numbers-wise and percentage-wise, end up in the hospital with appendicitis and sinusitis than with OMG FESTERING PURULENT GANGRENOUS CAT BITES!

Before anyone gets all up in arms, I know that the risks of wound infection from any cause are significantly higher for people with weakened immune systems, either due to disease or to immunosuppressive drugs, and for people with conditions like diabetes that harm the circulation.

But do you know how to lower the risk of getting an infection from a cat bite? First of all, don’t get bitten. Learn how to handle cats in a way that’s safe for you and for the cat. Don’t use your hands, arms and feet as play toys. Don’t hit, tail-yank or otherwise be aggressive with a cat.

Just look at this horrifying visage! Run away before it attacks! Photo CC-BY Rocky Mountain Feline Rescue

If you’re not acting like a dumbass and you get bitten anyway -- yes, it does occasionally happen with extremely fearful or painful cats -- then use proper first aid. I’ve gotten plenty of puncture wounds, including a couple of cat bites, over the years, and here’s what’s worked for me:

  1. Make the wound bleed. Squeeze your finger while running it under warm water and let your blood do its job of cleaning out the stuff you can’t see. I generally do this for 30 to 60 seconds.
  2. Put antibiotic ointment on the wound and cover it with an adhesive bandage.
  3. If that bandage gets wet, replace it immediately.
  4. Keep an eye on the wound. If the area gets red or starts swelling and/or hurting, seek medical attention.

If you have a healthy immune system and no bleeding or endocrine disorders and you do steps 1, 2 and 3, there’s a 90 percent chance that you’ll never need step 4.

One more time: do not use your hands and feet as kitty toys. It will not end well. Photo CC-BY-SA kniemla

Have you ever been bitten by a cat? What did you do to treat the wound? Did you develop an infection? Did you go to the doctor or the hospital? Do you think this cat bite danger craze is exaggerated, or do you think I’m underestimating the danger? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.

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