Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: July 21, 2023 by Crystal Uys
The information in this post is not a substitute for medical care. If you have been bitten by a cat, see your doctor or visit an urgent care facility. We cannot answer questions about whether your bite needs medical attention in the comments section.
It can happen even with the most loving, docile cat: an overexcited cat nips her guardian while playing, or accidentally bites her guardian’s finger while accepting a treat. In more extreme cases, redirected aggression can cause a cat to lash out at her guardian and cause severe damage. And of course, most of us will pet stray cats we meet along the way, but not all seemingly friendly cats remain friendly after being approached by strangers. Regardless of how a cat bite happens, it is not something to take lightly.
Why cat bites can be dangerous
Cat bites only account for 10-15% of animal bites reported by emergency rooms, but they pose a much greater risk of infection. Cat bites create narrow, deep puncture wounds. Unlike other animal bites, which can tear flesh and even break bones, these deeper wounds are much harder to clean. Additionally, cats’ mouths carry a large number of bacteria which can cause serious infections in bite wounds. One of the more common is a highly pathogenic bacterium, Pasteurella multocida.
What to do immediately after a cat bite
Immediately wash the wound under running water. If the wound is bleeding, don’t stop blood flow; in fact, try to encourage bleeding by gently pressing the area around the wound. Bleeding may help flush out any bacteria that may have gotten into the wound. Don’t use harsh disinfectants or chemicals to clean the wound, as they may harm tissue and slow down healing. Arnica, a homeopathic remedy, can help prevent bruising, and Ledum can help prevent infection.
Seek medical attention
While some cat bites may heal without causing infection, it is recommended that you seek medical attention for all cat bites. A serious infection can develop 24-48 hours after being bitten. According to a Mayo Clinic review of records for 193 cat bite victims, 36 were immediately admitted to the hospital, where they stayed an average of three days. Another 154 were treated with oral antibiotics as outpatients, although 21 of them eventually had to be hospitalized. Complications included nerve involvement, abscesses and loss of joint mobility.
Signs of an infected cat bite
If you decide to delay medical care, watch closely for signs of infection. If you notice any redness, swelling, discharge from the wound, increasing pain, or difficulty moving the hand, seek emergency care.
Treatment of cat bites
Most cat bites are treated with antibiotics, with penicillin being the most commonly used drug.
Cat bites to the hand can be especially dangerous since tendon sheaths and joints are close to the surface in the hand and cat bites penetrate deeply. In severe cases, surgery may be required to clean out the infected areas. Cat bites can also lead to bone infection, and in extreme cases, septic shock, which is a life-threatening condition.
Your physician may also recommend a tetanus shot. If the cat who bit you was not current on his rabies vaccination or was a stray with unknown vaccination status, you may need to undergo prophylactic treatment for rabies.
Cat bites are reportable
In most jurisdictions, physicians are required to report animal bites to the local health department. In almost all states, a cat that has bitten a human or another domestic animal must undergo a mandatory 10-day quarantine period. Some states allow this quarantine to be done in the cat’s home, others require that it will be carried out in an approved animal control facility. If the cat is healthy after 10 days, there is no risk to the person who was bitten.
How to prevent cat bites
Do not allow kittens and young cats to play with your hands. While the kitten grabbing at your hand and biting your fingers may be adorable, it won’t be so adorable anymore when he has grown into an adult cat. Use interactive toys to play with your cat instead.
Never try to separate cats who are fighting. If your cats get into a serious scuffle, use a blanket or sturdy piece of cardboard to try to separate them. Give them time to calm down before approaching them.
The information shared in this article is not a substitute for medical care. If you have been bitten by a cat, see your doctor or visit an urgent care facility. We cannot answer individual questions about whether your bite needs medical attention in the comments section.
Featured Image credit: Nau-Nau, Shutterstock
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.