What to Do if a Cat Bites You

Striking lightning-fast, sinking their small but dagger-like canine teeth into a hand or other extremity, domestic cats bite over 400,000 people every year in the United States, mostly women, reports the National Center for Biotechnology Information. If you become a victim of an angry feline, whether it be a stray you've befriended, a neighbor's cat, or even your own cat, it's vital you know what to do if a cat bites you.

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With deceptively powerful jaws — in contrast to their petite heads — cats can inflict small, painful puncture wounds that are medically characterized as deep and narrow, which allows the wound to rapidly seal itself, appearing to be almost healed. However, when the wound closes up it provides an anaerobic environment (lacking oxygen)that is fertile for the growth of the inoculated bacteria, thus posing a high risk of infection.

It's a mistake to ignore a cat bite, no matter how inconsequential it may appear at first glance. A cat's mouth is a breeding ground for a host of bacteria that when released into a person's skin through a bite can cause infection, sometimes with serious complications. If a cat bites you and breaks the skin, you'll need to follow a few important guidelines to reduce the chances of developing an infection.

What immediate action should you take if a cat bites you?

If a cat bites you, follow these steps to treat the wound at home:

  • Immediately wash the wound well with soap and warm water. If the bite is on your hand or other accessible area, wash under running water. Do not scrub the wound or use strong disinfectants or other chemicals because it could harm the tissue and delay healing.
  • To control bleeding, apply pressure to the wound using a bandage or absorbent dressing.
  • You can clean the wound with a mild salt solution made by mixing 1 teaspoon of table salt in 2 cups of water.

Keep in mind, that in a worst-case scenario, a serious infection can develop within 24 to 48 hours. Follow-up as soon as possible with your doctor who will prescribe antibiotics to reduce the risk of infection developing at the site of the bite or elsewhere in the body.

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Depending on the severity of the bite, your doctor may suture the wound with stitches or leave it open to heal. In some cases, a tetanus shot or a rabies prophylaxis treatment may be recommended. Keep in mind that in some jurisdictions, your doctor will be required to file a report to the local department of health. If the cat who bit you is current with their rabies vaccine, a short quarantine of 10 to 14 days may be ordered. Otherwise, if the rabies status is unknown, or vaccination has lapsed, the quarantine period will be substantially longer.

Signs of infection

Teeming with bacteria, cats' mouths harbor a highly pathogenic bacteria known as Pasteurella multocida, among others. Individuals who are Immunosuppressed, the elderly, and children are most susceptible to infection from cat bites. But anyone can develop an infection.

The signs of an infected cat bite are obvious; the bite wound will be painful, red, and swollen. With the potential to spread through surrounding tissues, causing cellulitis and through the blood, causing septicemia, also known as blood poisoning, an infected cat bite requires immediate medical attention.

Cat bite statistics

Accounting for 5% to 10% of all animal bites in America, cat bites are often overlooked, or considered not serious enough to do anything more than dab on some salve and cover with a Band-Aid. And that's the worst thing you can do since you're trapping in bacteria that can multiply. Traditionally, cat bites are left open to prevent secondary bacterial infection. Most cat bite victims report the attack was provoked, and don't typically seek medical treatment until after an infection has set in.

On the other hand, dog bites account for 85% to 90% of all bites, with about 50% unprovoked, and are generally reported immediately, explains Robert Ellis, MD and Carrie Ellis, DVM, MS at American Family Physician since dog bites involve some ripping and tearing of tissue or involve broken bones whereas cats bite and hold without moving their heads as dogs do. Therefore, cats don't do as much damage with the initial bite, but rather it's the secondary infection that makes cat bites so dangerous.

Beautiful ginger angry cat playing with woman hand and biting her with funny emotions
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Why do cats bite?

One minute your cat is all lovey-dovey and purring like a Harley when suddenly he bites you! Even the most docile and affectionate cat can turn on a dime revealing his wild side under certain circumstances. After thousands of years of living alongside humans, cats will never be as domesticated or as "tame" as dogs, and cat owners accept that. Studies of cat mummies from Egyptian tombs and other ancient and modern specimens spanning across 9,000 years show cats' genetic makeup, or DNA remains unchanged from their ancient ancestors. And it's working for them — cats are the most popular pet in the U.S. and you'll find one or more in 74 million homes. It's no wonder that cat bites are so prevalent.

A few of the many things that can trigger a cat bite are: inappropriate handling such as picking a cat up when he's not in the mood, overexcitement/overstimulation from a grooming or play session, stress, or redirected aggression. These situations can all cause a cat to lash out at anyone, even his favorite person, inflicting some real damage with teeth, and claws, too. Consequently, most "cat people" bitten by cats, their own or not, place the blame on themselves for inadvertently instigating a light nip, or a full-on, skin-piercing crunch.

How to avoid a cat bite

A cat bite is "almost like getting stabbed with a needle" an ER doctor reports. So, of course, you want to avoid a cat bite, but how do you know when a cat is going to bite? Well, there are several telltale signs a cat is becoming increasingly irritated, such as a twitching tail and "airplane" ears, or cues that indicate he may become even more aggressive and bite. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals say a rule of thumb is don't touch, attempt to reassure, or punish cats showing any of the following postures signifying offensive aggression:

  • The tail is stiff and lowered or held straight down to the ground.
  • The ears are upright and the backs are rotated slightly forward.
  • The cat is staring at you with constricted pupils.
  • More obvious signs are growling or howling.

Learning how to "speak" cat by recognizing feline body language helps you communicate more effectively with your cat, or any cat, and helps to avoid cat bites. Also, it's always a wise choice not to touch stray or feral cats, and don't play rough with your own cat, which encourages aggressive predator behaviors.

Cat bites and cat scratch disease

When a cat bites hard enough to break the surface of the skin, it can spread an infection caused by the Bartonella henselae bacterium, commonly known as cat-scratch disease, or CSD. This mild bacterial infection, which occurs at the site of the bite or cat scratch, develops about three to 14 days after the bite, explains Centers of Disease Control and Prevention The infection is typically painful and swollen, feels warm to the touch, and is red with round, raised lesions and pus.

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Other symptoms of cat-scratch disease is fever, headache, loss of appetite, and exhaustion. Later, the person's lymph nodes closest to the bite can become swollen, tender, or painful.

About 40% of cats carry B. henselae at some time in their lives without showing any signs of illness. By following the proper treatment regime after a cat bite, you can decrease your chances of contracting cat-scratch disease.

Cat bites, rabies, and the rabies vaccine

During 2000 to 2004, more cats than dogs were reported rabid in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mostly due to a spillover infection from a major outbreak of rabies in raccoons in the eastern U.S.

If you were bitten by a cat that is obviously rabid or suspected to be rabid, you will need to be vaccinated for rabies immediately. If the cat is of unknown origin, contact your public health official for advice. The likelihood of rabies varies by region, hence, the need for postexposure prophylaxis varies, proportionately.

If you are bitten by a cat that was healthy; for example, your own cat, or another cat that appeared to be healthy, you/the owner should observe the cat carefully over the next 10 days for signs of illness. If signs of illness are evident during the quarantine period, you should seek medical advice about the need for an anti-rabies prophylaxis, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Quarantines are precautionary; their purpose is to identify a cat that may appear healthy, but is, in fact, sick with rabies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that no person in the United States has contracted rabies after being bitten by a cat that has undergone a 10-day quarantine period.

People who have cat bites where no sign of rabies is observed should not be administered a rabies vaccine.

angry cat hissing with ears pointed down
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The bottom line: don't ignore a cat bite

As you can see, cat bites are not to be taken lightly. The bites themselves may be small, but they quickly can become infected if left to chance.

Given the strong potential for infection and further complications, if you are the victim of a cat bite, immediately follow the cleansing guidelines and see your doctor as soon as possible.