Should cat bites be taken more seriously?

Should cat bites be taken more seriously?

Most house cats are sweet, sleepy creatures that are pleasant company.  But if a cat is overly playful or aggressive, their behavior can lead to painful scratches and bites.

The bites may seem harmless because they don’t look as vicious as some dog bites.  However, according to a new study, cat bites can cause serious infections, especially when they are on the hand.

A Mayo Clinic research team studied nearly 200 cases of cat bites to the hand between 2009 and 2011.  Half of the patients went to an emergency room and the other half visited their primary care physician.

The study shows that one out of three people who sought medical treatment for a cat bite on the hand were hospitalized.  Of these patients who were hospitalized, two thirds of them needed surgery to remove an infection or clean the wound.

Dr. Brian Carlsen, the study’s senior author, said that cats’ teeth are very sharp, so they can penetrate very deeply into the flesh, tendons and joints.  Their fangs trap harmful bacteria deep into the tissue and joints, where it spreads and is difficult to treat.

The study found that bites directly over the wrist or any joint have a higher risk of hospitalization.  Dr. Carlsen believes that the higher risk is because joints and tendons are encased in fluid, so they do not have the benefit of regular blood flow that would deliver responses from the immune system.  Bacteria in these spots can grow without being challenged, resulting in infections that are so difficult to treat that oral antibiotics do not always work.

“It’s possible for both cat bites and deep scratches to lead to serious infections,” says Dr. Rishi Sikka, emergency medicine physician with Advocate Medical Group.

“The head of the infectious diseases division at Georgetown University Hospital stated that close to 50 percent of all cat bites become infected.  People should not underestimate the risks.  Seek immediate medical attention so that you can prevent a serious infection from happening or spreading.”

If you are bitten by a cat, here are some steps you should take, according to Dr. Sikka.

  • Wash the wound immediately with mild soap under running water.  Avoid scrubbing the wound vigorously or using chemicals because this can cause harm to the tissue.
  • If bleeding, apply direct pressure to the wound using a sterile bandage or gauze.
  • Apply antibiotic ointment to the area.
  • See a doctor as soon as possible.  Although it may seem like a small wound, bacteria can start growing immediately.  A serious infection can develop within twenty four to forty-eight hours, so consult a doctor quickly.

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  1. Judith A. Carlson February 13, 2014 at 12:52 pm · Reply

    The only time I’ve been bitten by any cat it’s been one of mine when the play gets a bit too enthusiastic. The same with cat scratches. Anyway – I cleanse the area thoroughly with pHisoHex (which I always have on hand), then flush with a dilute solution of hydrogen peroxide, dry with a sterile gauze, apply triple antibiotic ointment, and cover with sterile bandage. I use the same method for other minor wounds, such shallow cuts and scrapes, and I get a tetanus vaccination every 10 years or so. I have never had a wound infection in my life and I’m 72 years old.

  2. When in the military, i got bitten in the pinky finger from a kitten who didn’t want to be rescued while in the Azores in1999. I felt achy the following morning, got it checked out by a travelling military ortho doc by 1:00, who said it was really bad. Within 24 hrs, I spiked a 103 deg temp, treated the best they could and sent me to my hotel room. The following morning, I was sent to a Portugese hospital and was eventually medivaced to a naval hospital in Spain where I had surgery approx 2 1/2 days after the cat bite. 9 days in the hospital until they could arrange a military flight back to England wher I was stationed and another month before I was able to return to work. i have full motion but have residual nerve damage from the irrigation. Was told i was lucky to have a limb or my life. Took a few years before I would touch a cat! Cat bites are nothing to ignore.

  3. A year ago I was bitten by my cat when I didn’t let her escape when a dog entered the room. Her “fang” went directly into my thumb. I did wash it and bandage it, but twelve hours later I woke from a sound sleep with intense pain in my hand and a red strip heading up my arm – blood poisoning! I went to the emergency room and immediately was surrounded by doctors and nurses – IVs, x-ray, injections. From that day on I received 3 IVs a day of antibiotic for 7 days. I was warned that I might lose my thumb, but because of the quick, excellent work of the ER team and hospital, I just lost many layers of skin. My thumb is back to normal and full range of motion. Yes, I still have the cat who is very loving and loves to snuggle up on my lap, however, we no longer allow dog visits!

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.