October 25, 2021

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Safety, first aid, and seeking help

Cat bites can make deep puncture wounds which are harder to clean. The nature of those wound allows bacteria or other organisms to become trapped deeper in the skin, which can lead to infection. Cats also carry many bacteria in their mouths, which can lead to infection.

In the United States, cat and dog bites make up 1% of all emergency room visits. Cat bites make up 3% to 15% of these cases.

This article has more information on cat bites, safety tips, first aid, and when to seek medical attention.

Cats can bite when they become spooked or scared.

Cats carry a variety of pathogens in and on their bodies. In some cases, cat bites may lead to mild to severe infections.

Though the chance of infection can vary, general estimates of infection rates of cat bites range from 20% to 80%. Some estimates indicate that up to 50% of children bitten by a cat will develop an infection.

As a result, a person should watch for signs of infection if a cat bites them.

In addition to an infection, depending on the severity of the bite, the following complications could occur:

  • nerve damage
  • damage to tendons, particularly in the hands
  • a broken fragment of the cat’s tooth could get stuck in the wound
  • a scar at the site of the bite

Cat teeth are narrow and sharp, similar to a hypodermic needle, and can pierce soft skin easily.

When a cat bites a person and creates a puncture wound, it can trap bacteria in the deeper tissue as the surface of the wound heals.

Puncture wounds are also more difficult to clean.

This can result in an invasive infection.

Research has shown that cat bites carry a variety of different microorganisms that can cause infection. They include:

Pastuerella multocidea

Cornell University notes that Pasteurella multocida is present in 70% to 90% of cats.

Approximately 50% to 80% of cat bites become serious enough to warrant medical attention.

A person may experience pain, swelling, and inflammation around the wound within 24–48 hours after the bite.

An older 2013 study states that P. multocida can frequently cause cellulitis and abscesses.

In rare cases, the bacteria can spread through the bloodstream, leading to sepsis. An infection of the heart valves may also occur.

For people with preexisting lung conditions, it may also cause pneumonia, bronchopneumonia, or respiratory infection.

Antibiotics will successfully treat the majority of cases.

Cat scratch disease

This occurs due to the bacteria called Bartonella henselae. A cat can contract the infection via flea bites, blood transfusions, or fights with other infected cats. Approximately 40% of cats have a Bartonella henslae infection.

If a cat scratches or bites a person, or licks an open wound on a person, it can transmit the bacteria to that person.

It can take about 3–14 days for scratches or bites to show signs of infection.

Typically, cat scratch disease will resolve without treatment in 2–4 months and treatment is not necessary. For those with severe or persistent symptoms, doctors may prescribe antibiotics.

Signs in cats

Most cats with the infection do not show symptoms. However, some may experience a fever lasting 2–3 days. More severe symptoms include vomiting, red eyes, tiredness, low appetite, and swollen lymph nodes.

Treatment is not typically needed unless the cat becomes ill. It is safer to let the cat’s body handle the infection without intervention.

Signs in people

A person may notice symptoms 1–3 weeks after contracting the infection, and experience fever and enlarged, tender lymph nodes.

Less common symptoms include eye infection and muscle pain.

Rabies

Rabies is a neurologic disease that spreads through the bites of animals with the infection.

Rabies is rare in the United States due to vaccination programs for domesticated animals. However, it is still present in wild animals.

Though most domesticated cats have likely had a rabies vaccination, a bite from an unvaccinated pet or stray cat could spread rabies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that if a person experiences a cat bite from an animal that appeared healthy at the time, and can locate the owner, the owner should confine the cat for 10 days and observe it for symptoms. If no symptoms appear, the bitten person will not need to receive anti-rabies prophylaxis.

No person in the U.S. has contracted rabies from a cat that was quarantined in this manner.

If the cat appeared ill at the time of the bite or becomes ill during a 10-day quarantine, then the person should seek medical advice about whether they require anti-rabies prophylaxis.

Signs in cats

A cat with rabies will experience sudden changes in its behavior, alongside progressive paralysis. It may also become restless, pant, and may attack others animals or people.

Animals with rabies will die within a few days after symptoms appear.

Signs in people

Signs of rabies can appear within days to months after contracting the infection. When symptoms appear, it is normally too late to get treatment.

After a bite from any animal, a person should wash the wound with soap and water and talk to a healthcare professional about next steps.

Sporotrichosis

This is an infection that occurs due to a fungus. It typically spreads from the environment through an open wound on the skin. However, it can also spread through cat bites.

According to the CDC, most cases affect just the skin and are not life-threatening. The most common treatment is an antifungal medication called itraconazole. A person will take this medication for 3–6 months.

If the infection has affected the lungs, joints, bones, or central nervous system, a person will receive intravenous amphotericin B medicine. Surgery may be an option if the fungus has affected the lungs.

Signs in cats

Cats may not show signs of illness. They may develop small, draining wounds that turn into raised lumps.

Signs in people

If the fungus is growing on the skin, a person may notice a small red, pink, or, purple bump that can appear 1–12 weeks after exposure. The bump will eventually grow larger and look similar to an open sore or ulcer. Additional bumps may also appear near the original.

If the fungus affects the lungs, a person may experience coughing, chest pain, fever, and shortness of breath.

The CDC recommends washing any bite or scratch with warm, running water and soap.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, if a person experiences a superficial bite from a domestic pet and that pet is in good health and immunized, they should wash the wound with soap and water for at least 5 minutes and watch for signs of infection.

For deeper bites from any animal, a person should apply pressure with a clean bandage or towel to stop the bleeding. They should then:

  1. Wash the wound using soap and water for 5 minutes, avoiding scrubbing as this could cause bruising.
  2. Dry the wound and cover with a sterile dressing.
  3. Call a healthcare professional for guidance about whether or not they require additional treatment.

It is important to note that a person should avoid using tape or butterfly bandages, as this could trap harmful bacteria in the wound.

When a cat bite becomes infected, it can lead to symptoms such as:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • inflammation
  • redness or skin discoloration around the wound
  • warmth
  • pus or fluid leaking from the wound

According to the American Society for Surgery of the Hand, signs an infection may be getting worse or spreading include:

  • fever
  • streaks leading away from the bite
  • swollen glands
  • fatigue or tiredness
  • shakes
  • night sweats

A person should contact a doctor if they believe they have an infection that may be spreading.

Treatment can vary based on the location of the bite and rabies vaccination status of the cat.

The World Health Organization states that treatment for cat bites often includes:

  • early medical management, such as cleaning the wound
  • prophylactic antibiotics to prevent possible infection
  • post-exposure rabies treatment if the animal could have rabies
  • administration of tetanus vaccine if the person’s vaccination status is not adequate enough

If a stray cat has caused the bite, a person should wash the wound with soap and water for 5 minutes and contact a doctor immediately.

A stray cat could carry rabies, which may require treatment using rabies postexposure prophylaxis (PEP). The treatment is designed to keep a person from developing rabies following suspected exposure.

When the cat bite comes from a domestic cat, a person may not need to contact a doctor right away. They should, however, take steps to ensure the wound is cleaned immediately.

Following cleaning and dressing their wound, a person should watch for signs of infection and contact a doctor if the area appears infected or they experience any unusual symptoms, including:

  • fever
  • headache
  • decreased appetite
  • swollen glands
  • a general feeling of illness

With early intervention, most cat bite infections are treatable with antibiotics or other medications and care.

Without treatment, an infected cat bite can lead to potentially serious complications.

A cat owner should be sure to take their pet to a veterinarian for routine care. This can ensure that the cat is healthy and prevent infectious diseases.

People should also take the following steps to help prevent getting bitten or scratched:

  • be cautious with unfamiliar animals, and approach them with care even if they appear to be friendly
  • avoid playing roughly with animals, as this can lead to them becoming defensive toward other people
  • avoid rough play when a pet cat is young to help discourage biting and scratching
  • trim the cat’s nails, with help from a veterinarian if needed
  • teach children to interact with cats and other animals respectfully, and to let their caregivers know if they have received a bite or scratch

There is no evidence to suggest a cat will develop any long-lasting ill effects from biting a human, other than research that indicates that a cat might break a tooth in the wound.

A doctor will need to carefully remove the tooth fragment from the wound to help it heal.

Cat bites can lead to infection because they can leave behind a deep wound that heals quickly, trapping bacteria inside. A person should take a cat bite seriously if it occurs.

If a person is bitten by a cat, they should wash the wound for 5 minutes with soap and water, cover it with sterile dressing, and contact a healthcare professional for advice.

A doctor will be able to evaluate the risk of rabies and prescribe antibiotics to treat an infection if one occurs.