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Cat bites are less common than dog bites but they are far more likely to cause infections. While people fear rabies the most, wound infection from certain bacteria common to cats are the mostly cause of complications.

Pets can make our lives much happier. We must be very careful, though, when it comes to being hurt by a pet. Playful scratches and bites are common, but some of these bites can become serious and cause complications.

Animal Bites

The American Pet Association reports that there are about 150M dogs and cats living in the United States, with cats outnumbering dogs. Animal bites are therefore very common in the US, with about two to five million people being affected each year, accounting for one percent of emergency room visits. It is estimated that bout 10-20 people die yearly from animal bites.

Children are the most likely victims, and dogs are the most likely attackers. In fact, up to 90% of all animal bites are caused by dogs, with cats coming in second, followed by other animals such as rodents, ferrets, rabbits, and farm animals.

Although most bites are caused by dogs, cat bites are the most likely to cause serious infections.

Why Cat Bites are Risky

Cats have very sharp, long and pointed teeth that can bury themselves deep into the flesh, causing puncture wounds. Cats usually bite when provoked, especially the female felines. These bites can be much deeper than the victim thinks because the skin can seal off the small punctured site, thus preventing open drainage and leading to infection. While only one percent of dog bites lead to infection that requires hospitalization, up to 10% of cat bites send victims to the hospital for treatment.

About two-thirds of cat bites involve the hands and arms of the victim.

When bitten, the skin and tissues can be infected by bacteria. When not treated immediately, the tendons, bones and joints may be affected, causing deep tissue infection such as cellulitis (soft tissue infection), tendosynovitis (infection of the tendon and joint spaces), osteomyelitis (bone infection) or septic arthritis (joint infection). The initial symptoms may include skin redness, intense pain and swelling, which may develop within 12 to 24 hours. Without proper treatment this can progress and pain may involve the whole arm, with red streaks on the skin extending to the arm. Lymph nodes in the armpits may become swollen. You may lose sensation in the fingers or hand, as well as ability to move the hand or arm. Fever, chills, sweating and loss of energy may also occur. These symptoms should send you to the emergency room or to your doctor's office. More serious complications include meningitis (affecting the brain coverings) and sepsis (widespread or disseminated infection).

A recent study published in the Journal of Hand Surgery showed that about a third of patients who sought emergency treatment for cat bites needed to stay in the hospital for further treatment of wound infections. Most of these cat bite victims were middle-aged women. Those who were bitten over the wrist or other joints were the most likely to be hospitalized since antibiotic treatments failed to prevent infection. The joints are good breeding sites for bacterial growth, and treatment usually involved flushing the wounds and removing infected tissues every other day, in addition to antibiotic treatment.

One patient reported washing her bitten wrist and applying antiseptic but was unable to move her wrist after a week, prompting her to seek further treatment. She ended up staying eight weeks in the hospital and spending about $150,000 for medical bills.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Babovic N, Cayci C, and Carlsen B. Cat Bite Infections of the Hand: Assessment of Morbidity and Predictors of Severe Infection. J Hand Surg, 2014 Feb.Vol 39, Is 2 , pp 286-290. http://www.jhandsurg.org/article/S0363-5023%2813%2901539-6/abstract
  • USA Today. A cat bite can turn into a hospital stay, study. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/02/09/cat-bite-hospital-stay/5276997/
  • ASSH. Animal Bites. http://www.assh.org/Public/HandConditions/Pages/AnimalBites.aspx
  • Medscape. Pasteurella Multocida Infection. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/224920-overview
  • Medline Plus. Cat Scratch Disease. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001614.htm
  • UpToDate. Patient information: Animal bites (Beyond the Basics). http://www.uptodate.com/contents/animal-bites-beyond-the-basics
  • Photo courtesy of pestbarn by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/pestbarn/2572656855/
  • Photo courtesy of kniemla by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/15308454@N06/2389551733/
  • www.jhandsurg.org
  • www.usatoday.com
  • www.assh.org
  • medscape.com
  • www.nlm.nih.gov
  • www.uptodate.com