Cat Bite: An Incident Not to Be Taken Lightly

Renee DiPietro, CVT
Veterinary Information Specialist, Permitted Wildlife Rehabilitator

Did you know that a bite from your furry friend Felis domesticus (house cat), can have dire consequences? As a person who very recently spent 3 days hospitalized on IV antibiotics for a cat bite, I thought I would share a little public service warning. If your cat, or any other cat for that matter ever bites you, don’t take it lightly or try to treat this injury at home.

A couple of weeks ago I was bitten by a cat in the upper arm while working at a veterinary clinic. I cleaned the wounds well and then went straight to an urgent care facility as my own health care provider had no appointments available until the end of the day. Knowing what can happen if a cat bite goes untreated I chose urgent care. I cleaned the bites well, immediately. Within 2 hours of the bite I had been examined, treated, and started on oral antibiotics. For the rest of the day the heat and pain in and around the bite wounds grew. By evening I started to feel unwell but I attributed this to the anti-biotics. By bed time I was running a low- grade fever and the spreading redness and heat on my arm indicated that the bite wounds had become infected. We headed to the ER.

Now this is not my first cat bite rodeo, or even my first infected cat bite rodeo. (Studies show that 50 % of cat bites become infected) I have been bitten by cats, dogs, horses, hamsters, eagles, turtles, and even taloned by an owl during my career. I have always taken these wounds in stride as part of my occupation. This incident was different and more severe than I personally have ever experienced, but it not an uncommon outcome among cat bite victims. I am going to tell you why.

The bacterial flora in a cat’s mouth include some nasty anaerobic bacteria (thriving where oxygen is not present). The most common offender in the cat’s mouth is Pasteurella multocida. This bacteria is also present in the mouths of other animals that bite, but in cats the potential for this pathogen to cause serious infection is amplified by feline dental structure when a cat bite occurs. Cat’s teeth are sharp, like a needle. When a cat bites you they basically inject this aggressive pathogen (and others) deep into your tissue. This plunges the bacteria right into a warm, dark, low oxygen environment which is optimal for the development of infection. From there, an aggressive cellulitis (skin infection) can take root and spread quickly. Additional complications can include Osteomyelitis (bone infection), Sepsis, (a life threatening systemic response to infection), chronic local infection, disfigurement etc. Treatment for infected cat bites often requires hospitalization, treatment with IV antibiotics, surgery, and in rare cases amputations.

Studies have found that up to 90% of domestic cats carry Pasteurella in their mouths.

A Mayo Clinic study on infected cat bites found that 72 % of people hospitalized immediately after presentation to an ER for an infected cat bite required surgery as part of their medical treatment.

I am still on antibiotics, and the jury is still out on whether I will be having surgery.

Another significant concern when one is bitten by a cat, or any mammal, is the animal’s vaccine status and potential to transmit Rabies. Cats, like all other mammals can be infected with and carry Rabies. This neurologic virus if left untreated is almost always fatal. If you think the above described infection sounds bad, contracting Rabies would be astronomically worse. Once symptoms appear the chance for a good outcome (one where you don’t die) is basically nil.

Rabies is a public health hazard and if you are bitten by an unvaccinated mammal it is taken very seriously. The cat that bit me was not vaccinated. I have been vaccinated for Rabies for over 20 years and have always had good titers when checked every two years to make sure the vaccine was still protective in my system. Regardless of this, while in the ER I received rabies post exposure treatment. Fun times. For me this included several injections of Human Rabies Immune Globulin. They want to get this as close as they can to any potential Rabies virus particles in the bite wounds. In my case this meant that the injections were injected all around the bite wounds in the infected area. Can you say ouch? After that I also received a booster to my rabies vaccine and then 2 more boosters on days 2 and four after the bite. So much fun.

You can find pictures of my own personal incident at the bottom of this article. If you are squeamish you may want to avoid them. If you choose to look, you will see where the nurses in the hospital drew circles on my arm to track the infection as it spread.

Long story short, avoid cat bites at all costs. It is not worth the risk. How can you do this? With your own cat at home it is important to teach them from kitten hood that biting is not okay, even during play. It is best not to encourage rough play that involves your hands or other body parts with a kitten or adult cat.

For tips on teaching your cat or kitten not to bite, consult with your veterinarian or a pet behaviorist. Do not attempt medical procedures (taking a temperature for example) or significant grooming procedures on your own cat without assistance, (preferably professional experience) or proper training in cat restraint.

For your own safety, avoid petting cats on the street that you do not know, no matter how friendly they seem. If you are attempting to rescue a cat, wear thick gloves when handling it and have it examined immediately by a licensed veterinarian.

If you are bitten by a cat, wash the wound immediately with soap and water, and then immediately seek medical care. This is not something to play with. As evidenced by my story, even a cat bite treated immediately can become a serious health issue.

So…. love your wonderful feline friend, help that homeless kitten, but for goodness sake, avoid those teeth!